Sunday, January 24, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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San Francisco -- The Presidio Beats Swords To Plowshares

Chicago Tribune

SAN FRANCISCO - For more than two centuries, since before there was a United States, three countries' armies have occupied the Presidio, a once-strategic base at the mouth of San Francisco's Golden Gate.

Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the historic military encampment ensconced on the shores of San Francisco Bay is about to set aside its warrior trappings and serve as a center of international cooperation.

Slated for closure as a U.S. Army base by 1995, the Presidio will become an outpost of a different sort, a global environmental center dedicated to education, research and a search for solutions to the world's problems.

In the process of beating its swords into modern-day plowshares, the Presidio will usher in a new era as the first U.S. national park designed to function as a profitmaking enterprise or at least a largely self-sustaining one.

"This has been a military installation for over 200 years," said Michael Savage, a National Park Service official working on the Presidio's transition. "The old world order was based on defense, but we're moving towards a new world order based on the environment and health and education. We want the Presidio to symbolize that."

One of the architects of that new world, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, has served notice that he would like to set up shop here for his Moscow-based peace institute.

Moved by the sweeping vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay beyond during a visit last spring, Gorbachev told park officials no setting could be more fitting for the rest of his life's work.

"It is wonderful and symbolic that a military base is being converted for use by the people," Gorbachev said. "I think the Presidio would be an ideal setting for the Gorbachev Foundation."

Last spring the Park Service solicited ideas from around the world for the Presidio's future. Planners envision a phased transformation over the next 20 years. So far more than 320 written proposals have poured in, ranging from the whimsical to the visionary.

They include plans for the world's tallest bungee jumping tower, a "Frisbee" golf course with a nature awareness theme, a U.S. Peace Academy modeled on the military academies, an artists' colony and homeless shelter, and numerous environmental research and international exchange institutes.

The Sierra Club and other environmental and non-profit groups have proposed moving their headquarters to the Presidio. The United Nations, approaching the 50th anniversary of its founding in San Francisco in 1945, has expressed interest in basing an agency here. Universities and educational organizations want to make use of existing medical facilities for teaching and youth-service programs.

Park officials want to include facilities for jogging, cycling, hiking and other outdoor activities, all set amid the backdrop of what, in effect, will be the world's largest environmental theme park.

"What we want to see is a set of uses and institutions that are worthy of the worldwide stature of the Presidio," said Brian O'Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the national park that will encompass the military base after the Army leaves in late 1994.

Spanish troops knew what they were doing when they set up a fortress on this hill in 1776, three months before the United States declared its independence from Britain.

The Spanish were followed by the Mexicans in 1822 after their independence from Spain, and by U.S. troops 24 years later at the outset of the Mexican-American War.

Over the years, some of the Army's greatest leaders served here. Past base commanders include Gen. William T. Sherman, Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan and Lt. Gen. Arthur McArthur, father of Douglas. Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing was the Presidio's commander when his wife and three daughters died in a home fire on the base while he was away chasing Pancho Villa along the Mexican border in 1915.

Troops from the Presidio helped keep order and assist victims of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. The base was a major staging area during World War II and served as an administrative center during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Most recently, the U.S. 6th Army headquartered here coordinated the deployment of the California National Guard to Los Angeles during last spring's riots.

"The history of this place goes back to the history of America," said Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, the Presidio's deputy commanding officer.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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