Ahead of today’s Tunnel Tops preview event, Jean Fraser, CEO of the Presidio Trust talks to The Standard about what it means to complete the project, her favorite spot in the park, and the last big project needed to “complete” the Presidio.
As blankets hit the lawn and gawkers hit viewpoints when the Presidio’s Tunnel Tops opens to the public next month, it won’t just be the largest urban park to debut in San Francisco in years. The 14-acre natural showstopper signifies the completion of a very long and complex to-do list for its manager, The Presidio Trust.
“The Tunnel Tops finally knits back together the two pieces of the Presidio that we all love, Crissy Field and the Main Post,” says Jean Fraser, CEO of the Presidio Trust, the unique federal agency created in 1998 to manage the 1,500-acre former Army base, in conjunction with the National Park Service and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
When the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed in the 1930s, the bridge approach split the waterfront from the Army’s main post area. Now the vast Tunnel Tops park will bridge the divide, the final part of the Presidio Parkway project that replaced the deteriorating Doyle Drive approach to the bridge.
A preview event today will showcase the Tunnel Tops’ many picnic-able lawns, campfire circle, and massive playground—all delivering bridge-to-downtown bay views to build buzz for its ribbon-cutting and day-long event on July 17. The debut will take place just months after another newly revamped parkland was opened as part of the Presidio Parkway, the Battery Bluffs area.
But when Fraser was appointed CEO of the Presidio Trust in September 2016, the northern part of the Presidio was still a massive construction zone because of the roadway portion of the project. Having worked in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and insured all low-income kids in the city as CEO of the SF Health Plan, Fraser seemed the perfect candidate to lead the federal agency and its byzantine assembly of local, state, federal and nonprofit organizations to July’s finish line.
A Historic Landmark
The Presidio is an important site in California history.
In 1776, De Anza planted the first Spanish flag on the Ramaytush Ohlone land now known as the Presidio. The founding year leads to what Fraser terms a “friendly competition” between San Francisco’s Mission Dolores and the Presidio as to which spot is the birthplace of modern San Francisco.
Over the centuries, the base transitioned from a Spanish colonial outpost to U.S. military hands and then to a national park in 1994. Today it signifies a playground for the entire city and those who visit it.
“The thing I love about the Presidio is that it has a little bit of everything and a lot of things to love,” Fraser says. “We have forests where all you can hear are birds singing. We have beaches with amazing views. We have hills you can hike or bike up that are very challenging. The Main Post has the best lawn in San Francisco. And we also have endangered species that live nowhere else.”
At the same time, the Presidio’s historic military buildings are now home to museums, restaurants and a performing arts theater. And the recent opening of the Colibri Mexican restaurant in the Officer’s Club adds another much-needed eatery to the Park (“During the first week it was open, I was there three times!” Fraser confessed.)
The new Tunnel Tops park will feature food carts and trucks every day of the week and an additional restaurant opening later this year, which is a very good thing. Any money spent in the park keeps it in operation: The Presidio is the only part of the national park system that has to be self-funded. By leasing business and housing space, the trust covered its costs for the first time in 2013.
“Literally, [the Presidio Trust is] the only part of the National Park Service that is not funded annually by the federal government,” Fraser says. With more than 15 million visitors to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 2021, this is no small feat. “We operate as a free national park site and are open to everyone but at a low or very low cost to taxpayers. We run all these businesses and literally plow the money right back into the park.”
As a fan and insider, Fraser says picking her favorite spot in the park is akin to picking her favorite child. But when pressed, she revealed her No. 1 pick.
“The [National] Cemetery overlook is a spot that has the most beautiful view in the whole bay area,” Fraser says. The stop on the Park Trail is one that she never knew about before she worked at the trust even though she had visited the Presidio often. The vista looks out over the cemetery to the bay and the Marin Headlands. “It is a spot that was designed by the staff here at The Presidio so we’re very proud of it.”
With her massive to-do list completed, what does Fraser envision for the future of the Presidio?
“We continue to double down on being an oasis for plants and animals and people,” Fraser says, adding the trust’s environmental arm has restored marshes, waterways and other native environments so that plant and animal species can be reintroduced. “We’ve brought back turtles, oysters, mussels, frogs and it gives me hope for the future of the planet.”
And her next target for renovation?
“We would like to revamp Baker Beach,” Fraser says. The famed west-facing strand with bridge views has been a seaside gathering spot for generations but it needs new bathrooms, picnic areas and a source of funding. “If I could wave a magic wand and someone would be willing to fund it, I would say that’s the one last place to complete the Presidio as a wonderful place to be.”
Though these months have been a frenzy of preparation and events to celebrate the completion of these massive projects, Fraser says she has a great job.
“National parks are the only place where we are all truly equal,” Fraser says. “They’re the one place that we all own and can be free to be whomever we are.”
Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]