I spent over six months investigating corruption in the leadership of the Presidio Trust, which administers San Francisco's Presidio National Park. The resulting article, published in San Francisco magazine, led immediately to the ouster of the director, and became a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
Praise for Trouble in the Presidio
“Kerry Tremain’s exposé of mismanagement at the Presidio Trust led to a change in leadership at America’s newest national park—giving new hope for the future development of an American treasure.” —American Society of Magazine Editors, National Magazine Awards
“Kudos to Bruce Kelley, editor of San Francisco magazine, and intrepid reporter Kerry Tremain. Kelley and Tremain are up for a National Magazine Award for a terrific piece of reporting, “Trouble in the Presidio,” that ran in December’s issue. This article had impact. The then impresario of the Presidio resigned in utter disgrace after Tremain’s article appeared.” —P.J. Corkery, San Francisco Examiner
“Presidio Trust officials can deny it all they want, but it sure looks as if the latest San Francisco magazine had a big impact. It’s six-month investigation—’How arrogance, mismanagement, and infighting are threatening our new national park’—was barely on the newsstand for three weeks when Jim Meadows, the trust’s controversial director, resigned. [San Francisco] assigned the story to Kerry Tremain, a Berkeley writer and former Mother Jones editor.” —Dan Fost, San Francisco Chronicle
“Now the Presidio has a chance to get it right. The departure of executive director Jim Meadows should give all sides in the debate over the park’s future to reflect on its direction.” —San Francisco Chronicle editorial
Trouble in the Presidio
If anyone could develop the city's new national park, in the face of so much angry opposition, it was former Air Force pilot James Meadows. But as contracts are signed and the specter of business parks looms, the real threat to the prized land is beginning to look like the ruthless Meadows himself.
By Kerry Tremain
The Presidio, surrounded by the waters of the Golden Gate, its weathered land engorged with life and history, is jealously loved by San Franciscans. There, on the night following the attacks on New York and Washington, several assemble in one of the old fort's Army-issue buildings. They are angry, but the target of their fury is close to home. The federal corporation designed to save the new national park is desecrating it, they say. A phalanx of environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and park tenants lines up to attack the Presidio Trust, which is headed by developer James Meadows.
Only a few years ago, Congress threatened to sell the Presidio, a danger that still hangs in the air. The legislators refused to pay the enormous bills to maintain the park, then ultimately agreed in 1996 to cut a deal. If the Presidio could pay its own way by 2013, fine. If not, for all Congress cared, the park was done. It might end up as a swath of beachfront condos. The Trust was established to get the park's survival money out of the 800 buildings the Army left behind.
Even many environmental groups bought into the agency's job description. But the Trust's never-before-tried idea, that a national park should pay for itself, dances along San Francisco's political fault line, where money meets the public good. Two years ago, when the Trust decided to let filmmaker George Lucas erect a palace for his digital star warriors in place of the rotting hulk of Letterman Hospital in the park, environmentalists felt cut out and the battle began in earnest. Veterans of the city's long and often acrid wars over development picked sides. So did the city's richest and most powerful people, many from Pacific Heights above the park.
By now, the conflict the local press has dubbed "The Battle for the Presidio" has become so consuming that the September speakers only glancingly mention the terrorist assaults of the day before. The foes of development paint a picture of a Presidio dotted with luxury hotels, Pier 39-type amusement parks, and what Carl Anthony of Urban Habitat Program has termed "the resort atmosphere of Pebble Beach." The Trust's plans, they say, will endanger critters and birds and will create traffic snarls in nearby neighborhoods. Hillary Gitelman, the Trust's usually articulate and even-tempered planner, faces the critics looking ashen and rattled. "I feel like a naive soldier who wandered into a hostile forest," she tells them.
Donald Green, a trim, white-haired Sierra Clubber, repeatedly tells the gathering that the Trust is awash in lease revenue. With monies from the 800 housing units and 1 million square feet of office space it's fixed up so far, he says, the Trust could slow down, lower rents, forget about bringing in other big Lucas-like tenants, and still easily make the 2013 deadline. One speaker claims the Trust is ten years ahead of schedule.
Unfortunately, the opponents have it wrong. While their noisy public battle over development demands everyone's attention, quieter and more dangerous currents roil beneath the surface. According to a six-month San Francisco magazine investigation, the park's future is actually in financial peril. Insiders fault the management of Meadows, the Trust's executive director.
When the Trust board hired Meadows four years ago, they knew well the difficulty of developing public property next to an affluent neighborhood in cautious San Francisco. On the seven-member board are some of the city's more experienced hands-Gap billionaire Donald Fisher, who lives near the park; former UC Berkeley chancellor Mike Heyman; Amy Meyer, the respected community activist who helped create the Golden Gate National Recreation Area 30 years ago; and a former president of the city's Planning Commission, Toby Rosenblatt. Meadows, a former military pilot and developer of suburbs, malls, and industrial parks, was just the forceful type they wanted, someone who wouldn't get bogged down by the political ground fighting as he put the park in the black. "Have you ever known an Air Force pilot?" asked William Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and another board member. "They stay on mission, regardless of flak."
But four years later, Meadows has wreaked havoc with the Trust's finances and reputation. The agency's building program is stalled, and its plans to achieve self-sufficiency are leaking badly. When asked, Meadows said his long-term plan is still on track. He cited the city's souring real estate market and economy, suddenly made worse by the terrorist attacks, as raising new problems. True, but the trouble began earlier. He is widely distrusted and has created an organization saddled with egregious cost overruns, cover-ups, a disgruntled real estate community, and staff turmoil.
The Trust's financial crisis is not public knowledge so far, though board members are beginning to acknowledge problems. Still, most of them are hopeful that this is a burp, that the market and reasonable critics will come around, that they've got time to work with Meadows to repair the damage and make ends meet. "People should trust us," said Fisher.
Certainly, board members deserve credit for their dedication and energy. But we'd feel better if this wasn't the same group that failed to thoroughly check up on Meadows before they gave him command. If they had, they would have known that in past places he's worked, including Arizona during the savings-and-loan crisis, he's left behind a trail of debt, hard feelings, even financial ruin. One Phoenix businessperson put it this way: "With Jim in charge of the Presidio, I'd wonder who's minding the store."
Regardless, the Trust remains the only realistic way to save the park. And, as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi told us, "No one has the luxury of working outside the 2013 deadline." Could Meadows' leadership end up dooming the Presidio to the auction block?
The City's Crown Jewel
Pelosi has already rescued the Presidio from the budget ax once, in part as an homage to her mentor, the late Phil Burton. Burton, whose likeness stands in a rumpled bronze suit at Fort Mason, left the park in his congressional will, a 1972 bill establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio was slipped in like a codicil, barely noticed: The post, if ever abandoned by the Army, was to become a park, the crown jewel in his legacy of Bay Area parklands.
As Burton had hoped, the base was marked for closure at the end of the Cold War in 1989, and the Sixth Army formally left in 1994. The closure unleashed the city's energy. The Sierra Club's Michael Alexander organized a walking tour for 35 people; ten times that many showed up. San Francisco, as it does, held meetings. The famous, devoted, and accomplished, like director Francis Ford Coppola, the late Transamerica CEO James Harvey, and architect Maya Lin, worked on a plan. Studies were conducted, models studied, butcher paper filled and distilled and emailed to graphic designers. The Presidio was assigned a grand new vision that, if somewhat cloudy in detail, still reached for the sky: "to become a global center for exchanging ideas on critical societal challenges and environmental sustainability."
Idealism bubbled in San Francisco, but in Washington, trouble boiled. Newt Gingrich's revolution swept the elections of 1994, trumpeting the virtues of austerity and limited government. John Duncan Jr. of Tennessee stood in the House holding a sign with a picture of the Presidio's pet cemetery: "Is this your idea of a national park?" it asked. Duncan made hay of the kookier ideas that surfaced for the park, like bungee jumping off the Golden Gate and an extraterrestrial communications center at Crissy Field.
Pelosi employed the Presidio as its own spokesperson. She brought key representatives, including Duncan, to the park to show off its biological and historical riches. The land is home to several threatened and endangered species, including the only wild Raven's manzanita in the world, and rare eco-niches: porous serpentine rock areas and the remnants of dunes that once covered the Peninsula, surrounded by resilient plant survivors of the violent sea winds. The Presidio's forest of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress curves back against the Golden Gate, the buena vista mailed on postcards to families back home in Des Moines and Shanghai and a backdrop for countless newscasts and car ads. Thousands of locals and tourists hike or bike the park's many trails, play on its fields, comb its beaches.
The legislators were impressed by the land and by its military history, dating back to 1776, when Spanish captain Juan Bautista de Anza first scouted the land and successor José Moraga ordered the first dwellings built in what is now San Francisco. On this foggy, wind-swept tongue of land, where the mouth of the magnificent bay meets the sea, the Spanish army built a fort, El Presidio, to subjugate the native peoples and intimidate Russian or English challengers to the prize. Mexico, liberated from Spain in 1821, held the Presidio until Captain John C. Frémont's Bear Flaggers seized it for the United States in 1846.
However impressed Pelosi's colleagues were, the real problem was money. With its battalion of buildings, the Presidio would cost the National Park Service more to maintain than any other national park. "There were definitely people in Congress who wanted to sell this puppy," said Elizabeth Goldstein, the former regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who's now a city parks executive. "That didn't rise to the level of an idea," Pelosi said.
The buildings would have to provide the solution. More than 400 were designated as historic--meaning they must be renovated according to strict standards. Many were in bad shape and none were up to code. Despite its gorgeous setting, the post was more sprawl than park, and rotting underneath. The repair cost was a cool half billion. But if by leasing some buildings, enough revenues could be generated to fix even more, headway could be made without huge federal subsidies. The trick was in the execution: The more buildings that were fixed for the least amount of money, the more could be leased, and the more that were leased, the more could be fixed-and onward in a kind of virtuous circle of restoration. Eventually, the real estate revenues could fund nearly all the park's operations.
Pelosi believed the National Park Service had neither the entrepreneurial culture nor the expertise to pull off the task. It could do wonders with the shoreline areas, including Crissy Field and Baker Beach, but for the buildings a new agency was needed. She called the Trust "a very sophisticated financial tool, a creative and imaginative solution" that would save the park without burdening taxpayers. Even people now critical of the Trust supported the bill. Urban Habitat's Carl Anthony said, "The National Park Service didn't have the competence to pull it off. And the Bay Guardian and other critics of the Trust idea didn't have any real program for the situation in Congress."
President Bill Clinton appointed the board, and it began looking for an executive director. Each of its members had slogged through late-night city-planning meetings, where big ideas meet fear and loathing; they knew the dull, grinding cynicism that often haunts public development in San Francisco, the love of process in service of delay. The Presidio, with its deadline, couldn't wait. "For us to reach 2013, we need stuff up and running and generating revenue. We have five to seven years," said Trust board chair Rosenblatt.
Meadows, fresh from the conversion of Denver's Lowry Air Force Base, was an "easy choice," according to former board member and urban planning expert Ed Blakely. Meadows was bright and tenacious. Board members would handle the politics; Meadows would charge ahead. The happy ending would have extraordinary energy and beauty: one part 21st-century eco-development, one part raw nature.
In January 1998, Meadows thus succeeded two centuries of generals who had commanded the Presidio, and in many ways he embodied the uneasy tension that has always separated the bohemian city from the fort and its military culture. San Francisco has known, hated, and loved many flamboyant mayors, but with a few exceptions--like General Frederick Funston, who built tent cities for refugees of the 1906 earthquake and fire--most San Franciscans don't know the names of the Presidio's generals. Few know Meadows' name, either. Yet Meadows, like the generals, wields great power, and with an impunity the mayor can only dream about.
Hidden Deals, Lavish Spending
Meadows grew up the son of a high school sports star, "Woody," who served 30 years as a cop in Akron, Ohio, making less than his pals at the Goodyear factory. To augment his dad's low wages, the young Meadows helped him build small homes on the side. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, he served several tours in Vietnam, where he saw the bombers "decimate a strip a mile wide and ten miles long, stripping it of foliage, life-forms, or anything else." He claimed the war was not too traumatic for him. "I flew two missions a day, took a shower, and went downtown," he said. With friends from the Air Force, he began his development career in Denver in 1971, subsequently moving to Phoenix, Bakersfield, and back to Denver.
When he became Trust director, nearly everyone at the Presidio, friend and foe, saw that he would be aggressive. "He has a sense of urgency" is how Rosenblatt put it, approvingly. Meadows carries his bulky shoulders with military discipline. He brushes his gray hair straight back, as if facing a gale, emphasizing his broad head and a dark brow that buries his eyes. He speaks in a tone soft with condescension or in a booming reproach that lands on listeners like a gut punch. "His arrogance is just intense," said Goldstein.
Nonetheless, everyone knew the formidable mission required intensity. The Presidio is not only expensive to maintain, it's the nation's largest historic restoration effort. Meadows also inherited the city's tradition of fights over development. "People say New York is tough," said Goldstein, who cut her teeth in Manhattan. "San Francisco is much tougher." Both Meadows and the board were clearly under pressure. "It would be hard to look in the mirror and know that because of something I did or didn't do, the Presidio would go on the block," said Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Meadows quickly picked the "low-hanging fruit"--the residential rehabs. "On the straight facilities issues, stop the leaks, patch the roof, gate the windows, get the phones working; that's how his style is actually great," said board member Jennifer Hernandez, an environmental lawyer. The Trust renovated more than 200 residential buildings over four years, charging market rates for the bulk of more than 800 units. A few public agencies and not-for-profit groups like the San Francisco Film Society and Swords to Plowshares moved in, spending millions of their own money to fix up buildings. Meadows recruited talented people to a staff that grew to 460 employees. He also helped board members Reilly and Mary Murphy negotiate a breakthrough $100 million deal with the Army for environmental cleanup.
But behind the scenes, according to dozens of interviews with staffers and officials, the Trust quickly devolved into a dysfunctional family with the bullying Meadows at the helm. Nearly all of the current and past employees of Meadows we contacted responded with fear or caution when asked about him. Many reported being screamed at and humiliated. People outside the Trust also described him as routinely abrasive, even abusive. Trust critics have diverse motives--some hate the idea of private businesses in a park, and others don't want tourist traffic in their neighborhood. But a common thread is the hostility they've said they've felt from Meadows.
"Intimidation is his game," said one outside executive. "Jim is dictatorial, a very controlling, hard person to deal with." "He doesn't like being challenged," said a high-level insider at the Trust. "There are women who are active in various professional and activist capacities here, and he's got problems with that. There's a kind of guy who's okay with the command structure and the kind of guy that isn't. He's not going to put up with the kind of guy who isn't."
Only a few former employees would speak on the record. One, Daniel Hernandez, who was the Trust's residential development manager, described his embarrassment at being belittled by Meadows in front of consultants he knew. "In meetings with staff, there is a warm feeling that chills immediately when he comes in the room," said another insider. Board member Heyman has winced at Meadows' controlling style with staff. "I won't knock him for it," he said, "but it's not the way I do it. I'm not comfortable with it."
Meadows' former assistant Ricky Wing said, "I sometimes went home crying. He screams and cuts people down in meetings. Once, we had a fire at the Presidio, and I was dealing with it on the phone. He was talking to another person nearby and turned on me and said, 'Will you just shut up?'"
When she worked for him, Wing reported, not just personal abuse but financial problems were a way of life for Meadows. When he arrived at the Presidio, he owed thousands of dollars in unpaid income taxes, and Wing related how she fielded many complaints from creditors like Saks Fifth Avenue trying to collect debts. She once had to go to a check-cashing place to get a money order so his phone wouldn't be turned off. Yet at the same time, using Trust funds, he drove a BMW convertible and took first-class trips to Paris. He lived rent-free in the General's House, a 6,000-square-foot mansion high on a hill overlooking the park, which the Trust spent $80,000 to remodel.
With both insiders and outsiders, Meadows was often secretive and defensive, traits that caused potential allies to shy away and foes to dig in. Meadows was "always really evasive," said Daniel Hernandez, who was often in the dark about Trust plans. An independent study by CB Richard Ellis, a real estate consulting firm, reported that "a continuing issue, which hinders the success of the Presidio, is the public's negative perception of doing business with the Trust. This perception is felt widely among the brokerage community, public, and tenant community."
Meadows' style also helped provoke the now-heated opposition to the Trust. The campaign against the Lucas development picked up steam only after opponents discovered that Meadows had hidden or distorted critical information. The proposed deal called for 900,000 square feet of offices in a campus-like complex for Lucas workers. But some analysis from within the Trust indicated that the agency could live with a smaller project and that Lucas was open to it. Meadows repeatedly fought to keep those notions from the public. One ex–staff member charged that he instructed her to destroy a memo documenting that the Trust needed less lease money out of the project than it said publicly. Another ex-staffer claimed that Lucas executives had expressed a willingness to settle for a smaller development and still pay the Trust's favored lease. (Meadows denied both accounts.)
The apparent stonewalling infuriated activists. The Natural Resources Defense Council threatened a lawsuit over violations of the environmental-review process. "NRDC was spoiling for a fight," said Goldstein, who claimed that Meadows' obvious contempt for the environmentalists added fuel to the fire.
To ease growing concern about park development, the Trust agreed to stall new long-term leases and begin a long process of public comment about its unfolding plans for the whole park (called the Presidio Trust Implementation Plan, or PTIP). The financial effects were immediate. Suddenly, at the height of the superhot real estate market, prospective tenants were unwilling to commit hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to renovate buildings and locate in the park, knowing they might have to vacate in five years. High-profile erstwhile tenants, like venture capitalist Bill Hambrecht, walked away from potential deals. The Trust was left in what turned out to be a very dangerous position: relying on Meadows and his lieutenants to ready new commercial spaces for lease by themselves, with the Trust's own limited capital.
Meadows had always told the board that he could restore buildings less expensively by doing the work in-house rather than with private contractors. "Faster, better, cheaper" was his mantra. In charge of the Trust's operations department, which did all renovations, was Bruce Anderson, a Meadows protégé who followed him from Denver. The department employed 315 of the Trust's 460 workers. Meadows swore by Anderson, claiming that his cost estimates were lower than private contractor bids in an "absolutely apples-to-apples comparison." Meadows allowed that Anderson did the comparisons himself but insisted that bidding was run through the procurement department. Anderson's wife ran that department.
Meadows' head of commercial leasing, Ann Blackburn, had served as a consultant on more than 15 military-base reuse projects and was handpicked by Meadows. But according to confidential sources, when she checked Anderson's actual costs last spring, she discovered they were much higher than estimated. During the previous year, Anderson's crews had completed renovations on nine commercial buildings, seven of them for lease. The renovations cost on average more than twice as much as estimated. For the seven for lease, Blackburn found, the cost overruns totaled $2 million. The most egregious was for the temporary Jewish Community Center on the park's south side; renovations initially estimated at $460,000 actually cost $1.6 million.
One project that didn't make Blackburn's list showed an even greater overrun. For a Russian art exhibition at the Officers' Club last spring, Meadows ordered Anderson to devote whatever crews were necessary to prepare the building in time for the opening. Overtime piled up. The crews completed the work in time, but the final bill came to about $2 million, nearly four times the original estimate. To celebrate the opening, Meadows threw an enormous invitation-only party with Russian caviar, giant ice sculptures, Champagne, and fine California wines, paid for with Trust funds.
There was more. In April, Meadows told San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross that the Trust had spent $256,000 to fix up the Commandant's House for the so-called Decorator Showcase, a fund-raiser for San Francisco University High School, an elite private school where Trust board chair Rosenblatt is listed as an adviser. (The Trust, Meadows said, would have to spend the money on the building eventually anyway.) In fact, the cost was half a million dollars. The Trust's public affairs director at the time, Cynthia Carey-Grant, learned there was a discrepancy after the column ran. Meadows, against her advice, decided not to divulge the accurate figure to the press. She resigned shortly thereafter.
"He viewed PR as spin, period," said Carey-Grant. "It was an old way of thinking, before Odwalla and Tylenol. The facts were irrelevant. I confronted him on that, and basically he said that he was the boss." In interviews, Meadows claimed that he had never asked anyone to misrepresent facts to the press. He also disputed the cost-overrun figures; in particular, he challenged the initial half-million estimate for the Officers' Club. In his telling, that estimate was only for the first phase of a larger project; he just expanded the scope of the initial phase to include work that otherwise would have been done later.
But reliable sources said the estimate numbers were taken from official reports to the board. One said that when board member Fisher learned of the discrepancies, "he wasn't happy." And Blackburn had intended to report her results to the board. Eight days before their June meeting, she went over her tabulations with Harry Haigood, the Trust's new chief financial officer. Haigood, a former Wall Street investment banker, had just moved to the Presidio after occupying a top post in Clinton's treasury department. He was surprised by the figures. It was as if someone had told you it would cost $20,000 to remodel your kitchen, then sent you a bill for $50,000-and then did it again with your bathroom.
Projecting Blackburn's calculations forward, Anderson's crews could easily drive the Trust's renovations to a billion dollars or more. No existing Trust plan or income projection imagines the park could raise that level of revenue in the next 30 years. What's more, Blackburn had exposed an exponential cascade of squandered dollars. Every time a building wasn't repaired because the funds budgeted to repair it were instead spent on another building's cost overruns, the Trust also lost all revenue from the first building until it was repaired, leaving less money available to fix other buildings. The agency's virtuous circle of renovation and revenue had turned vicious.
Haigood asked Anderson to explain. Infuriated, Anderson marched to Blackburn's office and was overheard screaming at her. "You'll be sorry," Anderson reportedly told her. That Friday, in a meeting, Meadows was chilly and short with Blackburn. She told a friend, "I don't think I'm long for this place."
Indeed, Blackburn never got the chance to tell the board about the overruns. At the June 27 meeting, Meadows and the board went into a closed-door session. He expressed disappointment in Blackburn's work but failed to mention the cost-overrun report. The next morning, he called her in and forced her to resign.
On a tape recording Blackburn made of the meeting, she repeatedly asks Meadows if there was some deficiency in her performance. In Gary Condit fashion, Meadows answers by repeating certain phrases to chilling effect: "It is not the purpose of this meeting to discuss that....You are an at-will employee....It's in the best interests of the Trust."
In the San Francisco Business Times, Meadows declined to comment on why Blackburn left. But Blackburn's discovery leaked out to board members. Then, in September, Haigood delivered his financial report. Without substantial downsizing, he told them, the Trust was headed for red ink as early as next year. Privately, one member said the sudden lack of funds made the plan the Trust had spent months defending in public "a little fictional." Others expressed surprise, frustration, and anger.
Meadows' Shady Past
Certainly, Meadows is no stranger to failure. At least one Trust official acknowledged knowing that he had "a very spotty background in the real estate community." And Rosenblatt said he was aware of a bankruptcy in Meadows' past. But otherwise, board members seemed sincere in reporting they were unaware of much of his past record.
It's quite a record to be unaware of. Meadows' troubles began in 1978, when his old Air Force friend Paul Glenn encouraged him to move to Phoenix and introduced him to the Cardons, a family of oil millionaires and big landowners. Together they formed several development companies to build large commercial properties, malls, and suburbs around Phoenix. At the time, Arizona real estate shone like forty-niner gold. Meadows depicted what later happened in the state as an "economic downturn" or "the recession in the West." But he got caught up in the same borrowing frenzy as many other developers did, overspent, and eventually bankrupted his company, Cardon Meadows, and himself. Taxpayers covered the fallout. Eventually, federal prosecutors working on the S&L crisis successfully sued a close business partner of Meadows and the law firm that represented him. They also criminally convicted another former business partner involved with the Mafia in a stock-kiting scheme.
Meadows acknowledged borrowing millions from Western Savings and Loan, one of the largest failed S&Ls, whose bailout cost taxpayers an estimated $2 billion. But deeply involved was one of his attorneys, Glenn's good friend Paul Gilbert. According to the Arizona Republic, after Western collapsed, the federal government sued Gilbert and his firm for abetting Western's ruin; the company settled seven years ago for $12 million. The government also went after Glenn and Gilbert, who was a trustee for Glenn's family trust. Prosecutors claimed the pair had fraudulently transferred $433,000 into the trust to avoid paying an S&L judgment.
Meadows himself tried to stay afloat by cutting off payments to suppliers. He reportedly told some they would never be paid unless they kept working. "Many small companies here lost everything," said Charles Maxwell, the lawyer for the plumbers who installed pipes and air-conditioning in Meadows' buildings. All told, 35 lawsuits in the Maricopa County superior court in Phoenix named Meadows and his companies in actions, many involving suppliers, failed savings and loans, and banks. When told about Meadows' position at the Presidio, his former architect's lawyer laughed. "It's amazing where these guys bounce back," he said.
Meadows also partnered with Gordon Hall, the flamboyant Arizona developer who oversold subscriptions to his Nautilus spas. "Gordon was flying pretty high at that point in Arizona," Meadows said. The two planned a shopping center on the trendy corner of Tatum Boulevard and Bell Road in Phoenix. A real estate pro was appalled when Meadows decided to go ahead with the partnership: "Who would want to get in bed with Gordon Hall?"
Hall, who had declared his intention to be the richest man in the world and win the Mr. America title and the presidency, had a more spectacular fall than Meadows, according to press accounts. First, he lost his 50,000-square-foot Phoenix mansion, where he had painted his name on the roof in 44-foot-high letters. Then, two years ago, federal prosecutors convicted him of paying stock promoters associated with the Genovese and Bonanno crime families to boost the share price of his company. It was the largest-ever prosecution of stock manipulation involving the Mafia, a classic pump-and-dump operation.
The Tatum-Bell development with Hall collapsed along with many of Meadows' other projects, and Meadows declared personal bankruptcy. He also failed to pay at least $9,000 in income taxes and had liens taken out against him in 1995 and 1998, the year he began at the Presidio. "They're settled now," he said when asked about the liens. In 1990, Meadows moved to downtown Bakersfield to work as a vice president at Castle & Cooke, a real estate division of Dole Foods. According to a local realtor, he founded a C&C home-building division that pushed to be both developer and builder on its projects, a move that angered contractors on the city's southwest side.
The company's go-it-alone strategy backfired. Locals resented C&C's arrogance and sued the company. Kate Rosenlieb, who was on Bakersfield's Planning Commission at the time, said that C&C executives so damaged the company's reputation there that "it boggles the mind." She described Meadows' boss, David Murdock, as a man who believed that "people who stood in his way were not visionary and he was, and there was no room to negotiate." In 1994, the year Meadows left, the company suffered substantial layoffs due to poor sales and faced at least one lawsuit from neighborhood groups.
A real estate professional in Bakersfield described him as "the worst person I ever worked for, really nasty. He was a climber, no matter the cost. He set up rivals to get ahead with Murdock. He also pissed off all the local builders, burned up a lot of good people, then moved on."
From Bakersfield, Meadows was hired to direct the Lowry Air Force Base conversion in Denver, and proceeded to hit the ground running, as he later would do at the Presidio. The National Association of Installation Developers (NAID), an organization of base-closure executives that Meadows now leads as board president, praised him for "laying the groundwork for a thriving downtown community."
"Jim has always been high-energy, and he attacked Lowry," said Tom Markham, an old classmate of Meadows and his successor at Lowry. "He put the staff together and got us jump-started. He left the project in great shape and ahead of schedule."
Still, NAID also reported, shortly after Meadows left, that projected development costs at Lowry had more than doubled, from $150 million to $309 million. And a long article by Tony Perez-Giese, published in Westward magazine as Meadows departed for the Presidio, described the bad blood from his repeated clashes with neighborhood organizations and frustrated developers. Some Lowry board members were not unhappy to see him go. "The bottom line with Jim Meadows is that he lives in his own little world out there at Lowry," one developer told the reporter. "You really don't know what's happening behind the scenes. So as a private developer, you have to ask yourself if the frustration is worth it. Some of the brightest and best developers have skipped on Lowry because of this. There's a laundry list of them."
The Presidio Retrenches
A similar discontent has begun to grow among Trust board members. None of them are yet willing to openly advocate his dismissal, but when asked directly, none supported him vigorously. They are painfully aware that the park is in a dicey position. Haigood told the members that, without big changes, the Trust would run deficits in fiscal 2003. It must chop the Presidio's $51 million-a-year operating budget; layoffs are inevitable. Meadows argued he can accomplish that by letting term employees' contracts expire, but the vast majority of those won't be up for renewal anytime soon.
More important, the Trust is short on capital. Meadows has already spent most of the park's one-time $50 million federal loan, obviously getting less for the money than planned. Most prospective tenants with deep pockets have disappeared in this economy. The Trust will certainly have to slow down its pace of renovations. Critics might applaud, but they are in denial: When that happens, buildings sit empty or underutilized, slowly deteriorating-an option that board members call the "freeze-dried" park. That raises the odds of Congress reclaiming the property in 2013.
Despite the gloomy news, board members and Pelosi sound a can-do note. The new House whip will try to convince Congress to authorize another $100 million in borrowing but will face colleagues consumed with the terrorist threat. Murphy, the real estate attorney on the board, said that she and Fisher are pushing for outside contractors to help with the renovations, rather than doing them all in-house. The Trust needs to court developers to build or renovate in the Presidio using their own money, she said; the capital shortage should force them to do that. "Look at the Port of San Francisco," she said. "They have half a dozen projects going at once. You can't do that alone."
Making deals the public supports, however, will still be tricky. Many residents find the idea of private ventures at a public park so contrary to their beliefs that they want the Trust to fail, believing that political pressure will save the park. Others think the park should focus on bringing in nonprofits, but Jennifer Hernandez, who is perhaps the board member most open to outside ideas, said a "nonprofit nirvana" is a nonstarter. Indeed, it's difficult to think of many local nonprofits that can come up with $8 million to repair a building or commit to a 40-year lease. Most people, Fisher said, want the Trust to make the deals it needs to succeed, whether with businesses, private foundations, or museums. "We want to make sure it's done in good taste and that it's accessible to everyone."
The Lucas project looked like such a deal. For its new campus surrounded by publicly accessible open space, the company will pay a $5.8 million annual lease-an estimated 14 percent of the park's annual operating cost. But currently, the Trust is scrambling to come up with the demolition costs it agreed to pay. And many in San Francisco have reacted badly to the involvement of the pop-culture icon.
Amy Meyer said the board is consciously trying to be more responsive to the concerns of critics. The Trust has made an effort to settle contentious issues with winning compromises, as it did when it agreed to try to subdivide barracks and bigger homes into a greater number of more affordable units. Trust officials said the 4,000 comments they'd recently received from the public contained many other useful, creative ideas.
Attracting development partners, Murphy acknowledged, will require some bridge building with local real estate people. "We need to make ourselves more transparent and understandable, to make our world look more like the rest of the world." Murphy said these "are issues to address with the board and Jim, our interactions with the public."
The board is now zeroing in on Meadows' performance. In late September, just after he had received his review from executive search firm Korn-Ferry, Meadows shocked senior staff members when he suddenly apologized to them for past abuse. One described the scene as surreal, with everyone staring into his or her coffee cup.
Sounds better than getting screamed at. But will a personality modification be enough? Few think so. "Meadows' strategy is old-world, of meeting the bottom line without partnerships," said Daniel Hernandez. "But there are incredible Bay Area developers who know how to work with the public. Sometimes you don't get what you want, but sometimes you get something better." Said someone high up at the Trust: "His perspective and emphasis on traditional development is a mismatch both for San Francisco and a national park. He's not a team player, and the Presidio needs a team player."
The board members and those privy to their meetings describe honest debate, mutual respect, and integrity within the group itself. Several, including Reilly, Meyer, and Rosenblatt, have long records in conservation. Their reputations, even their legacies, are at stake. Perhaps that's why they chose a command-and-control developer like Meadows in the first place. They worried about real and potential adversaries rather than how they might build alliances with all those who want the park to succeed.
Even with new partners and fiscal discipline, the Presidio will defy easy solutions. It is not a pristine wilderness but a retired urban military installation, a place of conquest, not innocence. The old fort is a cemetery of grand ideas-of a greater Spain, an American West, an imperial Pacific power-with perhaps more in common with Gettysburg than with Yosemite. "We are writing a new chapter in the history of national parks," said Reilly at a recent public meeting. "We're writing it very slowly. We have never done this before." But asked privately if Meadows is still the best man to write that chapter, Reilly said, "It's a fair question."