A new 14-acre park built atop freeway tunnels near the Golden Gate Bridge is scheduled to open to the public July 17, completing a decades-old vision of a Mill Valley architect.
Known as the Presidio Tunnel Tops, the project is the most recent metamorphosis of the San Francisco Presidio in its nearly 250-year history. Construction took more than two years.
The free public park will include new pathways, picnic areas, lawns, native plant gardens, a community campfire site, youth education centers and playgrounds – all with expansive views of landmarks such as the Marin Headlands, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island and the city skyline.
The $118 million park will reconnect Crissy Field on the San Francisco waterfront with the Presidio Headquarters, Parade Grounds and Visitor Center for the first time in nearly 90 years. The areas were separated by the construction of Doyle Drive, which led to and from the Golden Gate Bridge before the tunnels known as the Presidio Parkway were built in 2015.
“You get to do a project like this every few generations,” said Christine Lehnertz, executive director of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Conservancy is a nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, which raised $98 million for the $118 million project.
The project was managed by the Presidio Trust, a federal agency established after the US Army base closed in 1994 and turned over to the National Park Service. The agency provided $20 million for the project.
Michael Boland, chief park officer at the Presidio Trust, said the completion of Tunnel Tops Park marks a “culmination” in a decade-long effort to convert what was once a US Army base, once laden with concrete and asphalt, into a public park. Tunnel Tops were preceded by the 2001 conversion of Crissy Field from a military airstrip to a 1.5-mile waterfront park. In 2011, the large parking lot on the Presidio’s parade ground was turned into a green space.
“It was all asphalt and highway,” Boland said as he stood on the top of the tunnel on Thursday. “Crissy Field was 100 acres of asphalt and packed dirt. On all three projects combined, we removed hundreds of acres of asphalt and turned it into parks.”
The Presidio has a long history of change. Originally established as an outpost for the Spanish Army in 1776, the Bay Area was eventually given to the Mexican government in 1822 and then to the US government during the 1847 Mexican-American War.
But it was Mill Valley landscape architect Michael Painter’s vision in the 1990s that was most responsible for the creation of Tunnel Tops Park.
In 1936, the Presidio was divided by the construction of Doyle Drive, a 1.5-mile elevated highway built by the New Deal and connected to the soon-to-be-completed Golden Gate Bridge. However, the street, with its narrow lanes and unstable ground beneath, was prone to accidents and earthquakes. The federal government gave the road a safety rating of 2 out of 100.
While Caltrans planned to upgrade the street with a similar design, Painter saw a way to lower the street and blend it better with the surrounding natural environment without blocking the view of the bay or bridge. His design became the $1.1 billion Presidio Parkway, which included the two tunnels and was completed in 2015. Painter died in June 2018 at the age of 83 while planning for Tunnel Tops Park was underway.
“It was just a park waiting to be found, and it found it,” Lehnertz said of Painter.
The park will be part of the larger Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding this October. San Francisco resident Amy Meyer worked with the Sierra Club and local politicians on the campaign that eventually helped create the park, which includes areas such as the Marin Headlands, Presidio, and Alcatraz Island.
Meyer described the new park as “unimaginably wonderful” as it will now provide a contiguous route through one of the park’s most popular areas.
“This is government and advocacy at its peak,” Meyer said.
The design of the new park blends seamlessly with other areas of the Presidio, Boland said, whether it’s using reclaimed local cypress wood for its benches or the 100,000 native plants scattered across the landscape.
Even the playgrounds are working to weave in the history and uniqueness of the Presidio. These include play structures resembling the nests of native hawks and orioles, and water troughs reminiscent of the Presidio’s former role as the city’s main water supply. An interactive education center offers hands-on learning about the Presidio’s native flora and fauna.
“It’s really about challenging yourself, for young people to challenge themselves and take risks so that they fall in love with nature,” Boland said.
The park will also have new dining options, including food truck areas, as well as a new restaurant from Colibri, which operates a Mexican restaurant in the Presidio. The restaurant will serve pizza, beer, wine and other food, Boland said. Another food hall is being planned and is expected to be completed in two years.
For more information on Tunnel Tops Park and opening day events, visit presidiotunneltops.gov.