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First look at the Presidio Tunnel Tops

Updated: Nov 13, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

Seating area surrounding the Fire Circle, with a great view

of the Golden Gate and Marin headlands beyond

Ever since construction began on Tunnel Tops (actually the tunnels themselves) some years ago, I've been interested in seeing what would result from the effort to connect the main portion of the Presidio with the shoreline and rebuilt wetlands in San Francisco. I must admit that I have a strong interest in parks that cover roadways, having worked for the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy for several years. I also make it a point to keep up with other similar efforts, such as Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and portions of Gathering Place in Tulsa.

The Main Parade Ground of the Presidio

Tunnel Tops is a new 14-acre extension of the Presidio, the former army base that was converted into a unique national park, with many historic buildings renovated and leased to a variety of businesses that help support the operation and maintenance of this massive park. The Presidio Trust is the managing agency, assisted by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service, among others. The heart of the Presidio is the lawn, known as the Main Parade Ground, with its unique large red chairs. Tunnel Tops extends the park over the relocated road ways down to Crissy Field and the wetlands that were revamped more than a decade ago.

View back toward the Presidio Main Parade Lawn (I intentionally included the nice new trash and recycling cans in front; I'm always looking for new examples of these.)

While you can still hear and see traffic speeding to and from the Golden Gate Bridge, Tunnel Tops is made up of lawns (some of the nicest lawns that I have ever seen and enjoyed), ample planting areas, a visitors center, an education building, and an expansive play area called the Outpost. On the very clear mid-October day when we visited, the views were outstanding.

View from the Fire Circle out to lawns and gardens and bay beyond.

The design of Tunnel Tops was created by James Corner Field Operations, who has worked on a number of destination parks. There's over 200,000 native and drought-tolerant plants, and given California's rather modest annual rainfall, it will take some time for the plantings to mature. But they're a great offset to the lawns, which must require a lot of care and attention to look that good.

Children and adults will enjoy the two-acre Outpost, a very creative play area that has great nature-based play amenities. I especially like the sand and water play areas, as well as the large number of areas with sticks, branches, wood, and other "found" pieces, allowing kids to assemble all sorts of things. Very clever, but it must require a fair amount of staff time to keep those areas stocked and in good working order. (A staffer was working in the area when we visited, which was close to the end of the day.)

Sand and water play area. The Outpost also has rinsing-off stations at entrances/exits.

Maker Table in the Outpost

An assembled "structure" in one of the nature play areas

There's a lot more to the Presidio than just the parade ground and Tunnel Tops. On previous trips, we've done a hike around a good portion of the open spaces, taking in the Andy Goldsworthy site-specific installations. Further, there's other vast spaces across the Golden Gate in Marin County, including the headlands, Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais, and miles and miles of trails for hiking, running, and biking. A myriad of local, state, and federal agencies, along with innovative nonprofits, help manage and improve these vast public spaces. Still, it's great to see projects like this close gaps in access to our parks and open spaces, literally bridging gaps in human-created infrastructure that creates barriers to easy access.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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