LGBTQ parks officials hail Presidio Tunnel Tops opening

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday July 18, 2022
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Michael Boland sits in the new Presidio Tunnel Tops national park July 16, a day before it opened to the public. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Michael Boland sits in the new Presidio Tunnel Tops national park July 16, a day before it opened to the public. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

After eight years of overseeing the design and construction phases of the Presidio Tunnel Tops, Michael Boland took in the transformative new parkland on the northern edge of San Francisco and admired the various amenities throughout its 14 acres. Several grass meadows serve as picnic spots with breathtaking views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

A campfire circle provides a space for nature talks by national parks rangers. Trails meander through the sloped site, wending a path to an extensive new play area for children called the Outpost adjacent to a revamped center for educational youth programs.

"The whole purpose of this place, in particular, is to provide a gateway to the national parks for everyone," said Boland, a Bay Area native and gay man who, since 2001, has been the chief of park development and visitor engagement for the Presidio Trust. "This is a gateway for communities that don't feel welcome in the national parks. Queer people, people of color still don't feel comfortable in national parks."

He spoke to the Bay Area Reporter during the new park site's ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, July 16, held a day prior to it officially opening to the public.

"It was thrilling," Boland said of seeing the fencing around the Tunnel Tops site come down, "because people immediately were using the park. And it was exciting to see so many diverse people coming and using it. We wanted to create a space where people would feel welcome and fall in love with the national parks and want to visit parks farther away like Point Reyes and Yosemite."

Boland had first spoken to the B.A.R. about the project and his decades-long career with the National Park Service in 2019 when he received the prestigious designation of Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. At the time seated at one of the outdoor tables of the Presidio Transit Center, now connected to the new park site and whose eateries are set to reopen later this year, Boland had noted that the Tunnel Tops was "the same size" as Mission Dolores Park, the city park on Liberty Hill he once lived near.

He worked closely with the firm James Corner Field Operations and federal park staff on the project. The firm created wood benches that line the new park's Cliff Walk trail with views of nearly the entire site.

His husband seated next to him, Boland chose the vantage point to speak with the B.A.R. last Saturday, as it overlooks the play and educational spaces for children below, which are his favorite places within Tunnel Tops. With his adult son engaged to marry, Boland hopes to one day bring his grandchildren there.

"When I was younger and queer and going to the national parks, I never saw same-sex couples in national parks," said Boland, 60, who grew up in the Bay Area and regularly visited national parks throughout California.

Children play on one of several special features of the new Presidio Tunnel¬†Tops¬†playground that incorporates natural elements of the former Army base. Photo by Rick Gerharter  

Sits atop tunnels
The new federal park site sits atop the highway tunnels that replaced the former Doyle Drive. The elevated freeway that led motorists off the Golden Gate Bridge into the city's Marina district was demolished and replaced with the ground level Presidio Parkway.

Crews covered the enclosed sections of the roadway with dirt in preparation for the creation of the new public green spaces, initially expected to open last fall. It connects the former parade grounds of the Presidio's Main Post area to Crissy Field, where a portion of the decommissioned airfield was restored into a bayside aquatic haven.

Parks officials spent several years going out to different neighborhoods in San Francisco to discuss various design concepts for the site and to gather input on what local residents wanted to see be included in an urban park setting. Issues like access via public transit and outreach to diverse communities topped the list along with the need for outdoor recreational opportunities for youth within the city.

"The site is totally new land," noted Boland, a landscape architect who also helped design the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and oversaw a redevelopment plan for the defunct prison grounds on Alcatraz Island. "People didn't understand what the site could be because the land didn't exist. We wanted to both help the community understand the potential of the site and learn what was needed. What we ended up building benefited everybody in the city."

The YMCA of San Francisco has partnered with the national parks to take advantage of the new park amenities for its Y Rangers program, which aims to connect urban youth to the outdoors. Local participants over the last several weeks helped test out the play spaces and educational facilities prior to their public unveiling.

"I am excited about it. This isn't just for one part of the city; it is for the whole city," Jamie Bruning-Miles, a gay man who is president and CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco, told the B.A.R. at the official dedication ceremony. "This is a park you can use and not just look at from a distance."

The Presidio Trust, a quasi-governmental and private entity, oversees the Presidio national park site. It has worked in collaboration with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the urban federal park's philanthropic partner, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, on rehabilitating the former army base into a recreational site along with housing, businesses, cultural attractions, lodging and other public amenities.

The parks conservancy helped raise $98 million for the Tunnel Tops project. It also contributed toward the creation of the William Penn Mott Jr. Presidio Visitor Center that now sits at one of the entrances into the new parkland.

The overhaul of the former guardhouse cost $5 million and initially opened in 2017 at 210 Lincoln Boulevard. Closed during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the facility recently reopened to park visitors.

Parks conservancy president and CEO Christine Lehnertz was also on hand for the unveiling over the weekend of the Tunnel Tops. She and her wife, Shari Dagg, reside a short walk away in one of the Presidio's residential buildings.

"Welcome to our nation's newest national park space. Let's give it up for this park," Lehnertz told those gathered for the ribbon-cutting.

Last Friday, at 6 a.m., Lehnertz was out for a walk and saw the fencing come down around the site. She told the B.A.R. she happened to witness the first dog and its owner walk into the new park.

"This will soon become a favorite location for people to picnic and to people watch," said Lehnertz, a lesbian named the GGNRA's first female superintendent seven years ago who retired from the National Park Service in 2019 when the parks conservancy hired her as its first female president and CEO.

Lehnertz had spent more than a year overseeing the nearly 83,000 protected acres across San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin counties before being transferred to lead the staff at Grand Canyon National Park. The GGNRA shares some management responsibilities for the Presidio with the Presidio Trust, while the parks conservancy helps support it financially.

As she had told the B.A.R. last year, the new Tunnel Tops park site will forever "change the face of San Francisco." Taking in the completed project over the weekend, Lehnertz said the conservancy now aims to raise $15 million over the next five years for its People in Parks Fund to help activate the space with programming.

"Presidio Tunnel Tops is a gift to people in San Francisco, in this nation, and literally across the world because of the generosity from the donors and supporters who made this happen," said Lehnertz during her prepared remarks.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, was on hand to help cut the ribbon to the new park. The agency contributed $205 million toward the Presidio Parkway project that led to the creation of the Tunnel Tops site.

"I think it is amazing," he told the B.A.R. "I think it is a great transformation of a lot of real estate that is now usable as an amazing urban park."

One of his legislative aides, Ross Green, has lived in the Presidio in a former Army barracks building off and on for six years. All that time he had peered over the fencing of the new park site and is now eager to make use of the new campfire setting.

"The kids space is just incredible," said Green, who plans to bring his nieces and nephews to it.

For Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), whose district includes the Presidio, last Saturday was his first time seeing the completed Tunnel Tops project. He marveled at the scenic beauty of the site.

"It is such a treasure," Ting told the B.A.R.

Members of Fogo na Roupa lead a procession along the Cliff Walk as part of opening ceremonies of the Presidio Tunnel Tops July 16. Photo by Rick Gerharter  

Myriad activities, art projects planned
Over the coming months myriad activities and temporary exhibitions are planned to lure visitors to the Presidio Tunnel Tops. Parks officials have teamed with a number of collaborators dubbed Presidio Activators on the various special features.

Oakland-based artist and environmentalist Favianna Rodriguez created the outdoor art installation "Ancestral Futurism: Looking Back to Repair the Future." It honors the Ohlone Ramaytush, the Indigenous people who originally called the Presidio home.

It also celebrates the diversity and interconnectedness of all humans, land, flora, and fauna that have lived in the local ecosystem for centuries. Rodriguez has used abstract symbols to reflect plants and creatures once abundant in the region.

"Our goal is to make this park a more welcoming and inclusive space," said Rodriguez.

Another member of the Presidio Activator Council is Shanti Project Executive Director Kaushik Roy. The straight ally is just one of the council members developing innovative ways to incorporate art, culture, food, healing, wellness, and music into the Presidio Tunnel Tops' opening season.

"There was a lot of intentionality in having Activators at Presidio Tunnel Tops," stated Roy. "There's a difference between saying everyone is welcome and making those people feel welcome. What we can do is create programming that keeps those communities in mind and makes people feel like they're truly wanted and they're not an afterthought."

Dining options
As for dining options, the Presidio Pop Up will feature daily mobile food trucks and carts cooking up dishes that celebrate the diverse cultures and cuisines of the Bay Area. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

The free ranger campfire talks are scheduled to occur from 4 to 4:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays through September 5, which is Labor Day. The campfire circle is located just behind the visitor center building, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the new Presidio Tunnel Tops and its various offerings and planned special events, visit its website.

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