Neighbors Weigh In On Lucas’ Big Presidio Move
Beth Winegarner, Editor
July 5, 2000
George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Center came one step closer to fruition last week as officials from the Presidio Trust and Letterman Digital Arts shared their updated plans for the project at a public hearing.
About 200 neighbors and interested parties attended the meeting to see the designs and share their concerns about the proposal which would move six of Lucas’ Marin-based companies — including Industrial Light & Magic, LucasArts Entertainment, LucasLearning, THX Group, the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Lucas Online — to the former military base in north San Francisco. Currently, these companies are located in various sites in and around San Rafael.
Late last month, Lucas officials revealed an updated version of their designs for the 23-acre site. Many of the changes had been made in response to earlier phases of public comment on the originals, which were first unveiled in the spring of 1999.
“Over the last 13 months, we have been working to enhance the design based on comments from the public,” said Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilm. “We are interested in continuing to make it the best possible project.”
In August of 1998, the Presidio Trust, which oversees the property, announced that it was seeking proposals for development on the site in the hopes of meeting the government’s requirement that it become financially self-sufficient by 2013. Lucas’ proposal was chosen last year as the preferred alternative for the site, which currently houses the Letterman Hospital, a medical facility which served military personnel and veterans.
Radley prefaced the introduction of the new designs with some caveats about Lucas’ role in developing plans for the Presidio. “Our company is not a developer. We are not coming into this from a real estate perspective. We wanted to come to the Presidio and help build a community here,” he said.
The design was motivated by a desire to make the site as unobtrusive as possible, with underground parking and a huge, publicly accessible “great meadow” which faces nearby neighborhoods. Designers also tried to create structures which blended both with the military structures on the site and the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) structures — of which only the Palace of Fine Arts remains — and to preserve views of the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We chose an architectural style that is harmonious to the others on the site,” Radley said. “This is not about ego architecture or making a statement.”
According to Frederick Knapp, the historical architect working on the project, it was a challenge to find designs which would be harmonious with the practicality of the cream-colored, red-roofed military buildings and the “exuberant, playful and eclectic” designs of the PPIE sites — which included Japanese gardens, a French pavilion, and a 400-foot-tall clock tower which was covered with glass tiles which glittered in the breeze.
In complement, the Lucas buildings are slated to be cream-colored or brick with terra cotta roof tiles, and a glass-paneled dining pavilion, for employees only, will be situated at one end of the meadow.
One of the biggest changes was to the meadow, which architects now describe as a “pastoral” setting with rolling hills, trees and wooded areas, footpaths and a creek winding down to a lagoon near the dining pavilion.
“Without getting too poetic, we hope it will create a pastoral journey,” Radley said. “There’s a tradition of going from urbanness to nature in order to find the truth of who you are, and return to the city, bringing back what you’d learned. We wanted to integrate man and nature [with this design] and create a sense of living harmoniously with the world.”
Despite Lucas officials’ optimism about the project and the updates made to its design, public comments were mixed regarding the improvements, as well as the plan itself.
Many speakers commended the architects on their design — and on their willingness to let public concerns guide the project. But a number of suggestions and critical comments were also delivered to the group, which said it would reply to all comments in writing by August 15.
Some wanted to be sure the exotic trees — planted by the PPIE designers in the early 1900s — would be saved; others encouraged more native plants in the development. A few were concerned about placing the child care center so close to the entrance and a major intersection; neighbors expressed fears about drunken visitors leaving the public restaurant and making noise on the streets.
One even wanted to know when the first three “Star Wars” movies would be released on DVD.
Holly Simons, an education advocate, suggested that Lucas consider adding an elementary school and high school to the concept in order to provide an educational component to the site.
John Rizzo, chairman of a Sierra Club committee, applauded the architects’ consideration of environmentally friendly design elements, such as circulating fresh air instead of installing air conditioning, but expressed some concerns over how much water would be used to sustain the meadow and creek.
“I’m happy to see that the team has been listening,” said resident Lucia Bogota. But she felt the pastoral meadow was “a little too cute. This is not a frivolous place.”
Many residents said the project created too much of an enclave, with the backs of its buildings to the rest of the park and the meadow protecting it from the nearest public intersection at Gorgas and Lyon Streets.
Tom Sergeant, manager of the Thoreau Center, which houses 40 non-profit organizations on the Presidio, objected to Lucas’ concept of modeling its buildings after the older ones. “This is a historic site. There should be a natural boundary between new and old so people can tell the historic from the new,” he said.
Michael Alexander, a member of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, said he was glad to see that architects had made so many improvements to the design. “I expect the third iteration will be improved even more,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, the first employees would be relocated from their offices scattered across San Rafael to their new workspace in the Presidio by 2003. In all, some 1,500 employees will eventually be moved to the San Francisco site. That situation has caused concern both for employees of the company as well as San Rafael officials who are concerned about filling the void Lucas will leave.
“We fully understand Mr. Lucas’ desire to bring all his companies onto a single campus,” said San Rafael Mayor Al Boro. “[They] have been wonderful corporate neighbors to the community.”
San Rafael City Manager Rod Gould said that while the decision to move the companies to the Presidio would mean an emotional loss for Marin, the move would not be the kind of blow to Marin’s economy that some could make it out to be.
“If Mr. Lucas had asked us to decide whether to move his empire to the San Francisco, we would vote unanimously no. We’ve enjoyed being part of the magic,” Gould said. “What all the commercial realtors tell us is [Lucas’] space is commercially desirable.” In addition, Lucas intends to maintain his headquarters at Skywalker Ranch in Marin.
Even so, some former employees expressed reservations about what the relocation would mean in terms of commute time or moving costs.
“I think it is a good idea to get all of the Lucas companies in one place. It would be much easier to work between the companies, when there aren’t several miles of road between offices,” said Dan Mihoerck, a former hardware and software compatibility technician for LucasArts. “But I am sure that if it came down to it, I would have had to leave the company when the move went through. The salary I was making would not have paid rent and living expenses for me to live down in San Francisco [and] the commute would have been horrid.”
Marcus Gaines, who also worked as a a hardware and software compatibility technician for LucasArts, said, “I thought that they were alienating a large portion of their workforce — all the ones who lived in the North Bay — by making a long commute even longer. I certainly wasn’t going to commute all the way to San Francisco for the kind of money they were paying. Nor was I going to move to San Francisco since I could barely afford to live in the North Bay on my LucasArts wages.”
“No matter where we moved, it would have affected some of our employees,” Radley said, adding that 25 percent of Lucas employees currently live in San Francisco. “We couldn’t find an appropriate place in Marin for this expansion, and the Presidio was an opportunity we couldn’t resist. But we’ve been working with our employees all along to minimize the effects of the move.”
The Presidio Trust will continue to accept public comment on the site through August 15. Meanwhile, it will continue its lease negotiations with Lucas Digital officials and make plans to demolish the monolithic Letterman Hospital so construction can begin. For more information about the Presidio Trust, including how to submit public comment on the site, visit its web site at http://www.presidiotrust.gov.
This article originally appeared in the San Rafael News Pointer.