Written by Anthony Veerkamp
Politics, sex, and religion: those are the three subjects we’ve all been taught not to bring up in polite company. Well, here in San Francisco at least, you can now add CAMP to that list of too-hot-to-touch topics.
For those who aren’t thoroughly indoctrinated in San Francisco civic engagement as contact sport, “CAMP” is the acronym for the 100,000 square foot museum (Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio) that Donald & Doris Fisher (founders of The Gap retail empire) had proposed for the Main Post at the Presidio of San Francisco to house their collection of contemporary art. I say “had” proposed, because the Fishers recently announced via a prepared statement that they had decided "with disappointment and sadness" to abandon their efforts to build the museum at the Main Post.
First some background. On August 8, 2007, Donald Fisher and the Presidio Trust announced with great fanfare a plan to build a new museum at the Presidio of San Francisco to house the Fishers’ extensive contemporary art collection. What got a lost in the initial buzz over the prospect of a new world-class art museum in San Francisco was the fact that the proposed location was or the most prominent spot at what the Presidio Trust itself has long referred to as the “historic heart of the Presidio.”
It was immediately clear to preservationists and park supporters that this was the wrong place for the museum, especially in light of the fact that the Presidio Trust’s own management plan adopted in 2002 calls for a museum of similar scale to be located on the site of the Presidio’s large, nonhistoric Commissary near Crissy Field.
Alarm over the CAMP proposal boiled over into outright indignation when late in 2007 the Fisher team unveiled its design for the proposed museum. I won’t say it was a bad design, but there was widespread agreement that it was a terrible design for the Main Post—which may be saying the same thing. The proposed museum was massive in scale and aggressively modern in design. The building appeared quite intentionally designed as a billboard for the collection, calling attention to itself and standing out and aloof from its historic and natural surroundings.
Despite the seismic jolt triggered by the design, and even though environmental review as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) as well as Section 106 consultation as required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) were just getting underway, the board of the Presidio Trust agreed to proceed with the Fisher’s CAMP proposal.
Easier said than done. The deeper we got into NEPA and Section 106 review, the more evident it became preservationists and the general public that CAMP as well as a number other major new construction projects proposed at the Main Post just couldn’t be reconciled with the Presidio Trust’s congressional mandate to manage the Presidio in a way that “protects the Presidio from development and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and historic and natural character of the area and cultural and recreational resources.”
And yet the planning process lumbered on, sometimes circling back on itself, generating documents with names like “Supplement to a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statements for the Presidio Trust Management Plan Main Post Update.” (I wish I were making that up.)
Then, on the eve of the July 4th holiday weekend, Mr. Fisher announced out of the blue that he was abandoning the plan to build the museum at the Main Post. I can’t pretend to know all of the factors that went into the Fishers’ decision, nor do I know what their next step will be, but the Fishers’ representative says that options to house the collection at a location elsewhere at the Presidio (say, maybe, the commissary site?), elsewhere in San Francisco, or elsewhere in the country are all still on the table. Meanwhile, the blame game has begun in earnest, and few have been immune to the toxic vitriol spewed in online comments to news stories, the modern equivalent of anonymous scrawls on restroom walls.
In any case, many issues remain to be resolved at the Presidio. Still on the table, for example, is the Main Post Update, of which CAMP was merely the largest and most contentious element. Whether other major elements of that plan such as a proposed new hotel facing the Main Parade and a greatly expanded Presidio Theatre remain viable without the CAMP keystone project-or even make any sense from a park planning perspective--is unclear. What is certain is that after a few cleansing breaths, I and my National Trust colleagues will be back at the table with our preservation partners, advocating for the long term protection of those qualities that make the Presidio one of the most historically significant places in the West.
Anthony Veerkamp is the senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Western Office.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.