Saying “No Thanks” to George
The famous filmmaker fails to sell San Francisco on a deal seemingly too good to be true.
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George Lucas sponsored this proposal for a site near the Presidio in San Francisco. The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, designed by the Urban Design Group of Dallas, would have been largely financed by the filmmaker, to the tune of $700 million.
Courtesy the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum
Development fights in prosperous, contentious cities are rarely as simple as the surface issues at hand, such as traffic or height. The proposals that cause a widespread civic fuss strike deeper—churning up gut reactions to culture and class, the evolving urban landscape, and how things ought to be, even if no two people define utopia in quite the same way. So it’s no wonder that San Francisco became transfixed last fall by the question of whether billionaire filmmaker and Bay Area resident George Lucas should be allowed to write a $700 million check to build and endow a museum showcasing his personal tastes in art. Or why a fight that from a distance seems absurd—more West Coast navel-gazing over a proposal that would make most municipalities swoon—exposed, in fact, a basic truth that other cities would do well to note: Big, easy answers aren’t nearly as persuasive as the underlying logic of place.
The finale in this saga came in early February, when the directors of the Presidio Trust closed down a competition that had begun 14 months earlier with 16 teams offering their best shot at crafting “a resource for the community and a national and international draw.” It sounds grandiose, but it boiled down to the chance to replace a 93,000-square-foot commissary-turned-sporting-goods-store with a cultural facility of, you guessed it, roughly 93,000 square feet.
Put that way, the whole mess seems overblown. And when you consider that one of the three finalists was Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and an undeniable force in the rise of digital animation, why on earth would any right-minded decision maker say no? Fair question—unless you understand the surroundings of what otherwise is a parking lot and retail box that could be found on the outskirts of any American suburb.
The former commissary stands across from Crissy Field, a 130-acre open space designed by Hargreaves Associates that in 2001 replaced a military airfield and supply yard. There’s a meadow-scaled lawn now dotted with eight immense Mark di Suvero sculptures, a re-created marsh, picnic spaces against a bluff and, connecting it all, a promenade along San Francisco Bay that extends beyond Crissy Field to conclude at a Civil War–era fort beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
The too-good-to-be-true setting doubles as the north rim of the Presidio, a former army post that in 1994 was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Though it’s within San Francisco’s boundaries, the 1,491-acre enclave is an autonomous piece of the National Park Service, required by Congress to be financially self-sufficient. The trust is managed by seven board members—six appointed by the president and one by the secretary of the interior.
When the Presidio began its new life, skeptics predicted it would degenerate into a thicket of homeless campers, blackberry vines, and fallen trees. Instead, what has emerged is a weave of forests and historic military buildings where wide trails lead past creeks freed from culverts, or freshly planted hillsides where the army dumped trash for decades. There are three Andy Goldsworthy installations, each an imaginative response to the setting. On the Presidio’s Main Post, the asphalt that covered the traditional parade ground has been replaced in part with a formal green where, during the summer, bonfires and food trucks are weekly attractions.
In between the Main Post and Crissy Field is the biggest project since military days—the rebuilding of the steel viaduct that, for 75 years, was the link between the Golden Gate Bridge and the neighborhoods of central San Francisco. The $1 billion project was born of engineering needs—seismic safety, for starters—but it includes two artificial bluffs that will drape across the redone roadway. The commissary site sits between the bluffs-to-be, across from the marsh, at the hinge where the different worlds will meet someday.