Brian O'Neill's Legacy Ensures a Bright Future for the GGNRA

BY HEATHER MACK
October 20, 2010

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[Photos: left: flickr user armstrks, right: via SF Chronicle]

"Nothing big happens in less than a decade," the late Brian O'Neill was quoted as saying. Those words from the ambitious superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (and longtime SPUR board member) who worked to transform one of the largest urban park districts in the country, still serve as a reminder when tackling giant projects, putting into perspective all that was accomplished during his tenure.

During an evening symposium at SPUR on the future of the park, GGNRA Executive Director Greg Moore emphasized the importance of community partnerships and local stewardships to carry on O'Neill's legacy.

When placed at the head of the 75,500- acre GGNRA — which encompasses San Francisco's Presidio, the Marin Headlands and portions of San Mateo County — in 1986, O'Neill's vision was "audaciously vast," said Moore. This was exemplified with the transformation of military posts to national parks over a span of several decades.

As San Francisco finally sees headway on massive projects such as the seismic and structurally unsafe Doyle Drive replacement, the giant swaths of green along the Northwestern portion of the city are also seeing progress once unthinkable.The 1,492-acre Presidio has been a monumental demonstration of what collaboration between multiple agencies such as the California Coastal Conservancy and a dedicated community can achieve, albeit one fraught with difficulties including legislative holdups and funding shortfalls.

Building on the legacy already established by early park advocates such as Philip Burton and John F. Kennedy, O'Neill went on to spearhead many projects whose success is visible today. The replanting of over 150,000 native plant species, construction of several impressive overlook sites, rehabilitation of more than 100 historic structures and major improvements to the GGNRA's 196 miles of trails have all been made possible through multi-agency collaboration and local involvement.

The Trails Forever Initiative, launched in 2003, aims to link the massive greenbelt north and south of the Golden Gate through an extensive network of trails. Signature trail projects include Land's End, Marin Parklands and Mori Point in San Mateo, which focus on making the trails more accessible and sustainable while encouraging citizens' responsibility to the parks.

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Crissy Field [Photo: flickr user Mel1st]

Among the most noticeable projects — and a popular favorite — was the overhaul of Crissy Field. Once used as a backyard dumpsite for the military, it had all the hallmarks of a toxic, forgotten port with piles of buckled concrete, discarded tires and mechanical parts. The $34 million campaign spearheaded by O'Neill resulted in a beautiful space now regarded as the front yard of San Francisco with a velvety lawn, walking and biking paths, public art installations and education centers for urban youth. More than 500,000 school kids participate in the Parks as Classrooms programs, fostering future generations of park enthusiasts and preservationists.

And the projects keep growing and evolving, thanks to the strong sense of stewardship fostered by trailblazers like O'Neill. On any given day of the year, volunteers including anyone from school children to corporate employees can be seen continuously working on the park. While the accomplishments have already been great, it is the ongoing stewardship from the people of the Bay Area that will keep the parks forever thriving.