A new entry for your San Francisco to-do list

By Forrest Brown | CNN

Space is a precious commodity in San Francisco. Finding room for new urban parkland in the densely developed, water-surrounded city requires some ingenuity.

On Sunday, a long-awaited creative solution opens to the public and gives tourists another thing to add to their San Francisco to-do list.

Called Presidio Tunnel Tops, this new federal parkland has been built in an unusual place — right on top of a busy highway tunnel, the Presidio Parkway.

Years in the making, the 14-acre park is an urban oasis with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The park is designed by James Corner Field Operations. That’s the firm behind New York City’s popular High Line, another project that creatively repurposed unused space into an urban escape and an effective, fun way to connect parts of a city.

“Great cities have great parks, and Presidio Tunnel Tops is a new green centerpiece in the context of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the world-class city of San Francisco,” Corner told CNN Travel through a representative from the Partnership for the Presidio.

“The iconic setting is perfect for transforming highway infrastructure into a vibrant new public space.”

Tunnel Tops will be part of the Presidio of San Francisco, which was used as a military base before being turned into a park. And the Presidio is one site in the sprawling Golden Gate National Recreation Area, made up of 80,000 acres of national parkland that stretches across numerous locations north and south of the landmark bridge.

The aerial rendering shows how the Presidio Tunnel Tops will fit into the larger Presidio area.(James Corner Field Operations)
The aerial rendering shows how the Presidio Tunnel Tops will fit into the larger Presidio area.(James Corner Field Operations) 

Tunnel Top features

While those Golden Gate views are going to be a certain highlight, the park plans other features for the city’s residents and many tourists.

First, Tunnel Tops connects two of the Presidio’s four main areas: The Presidio’s Main Post section to the Crissy Field waterfront area below, with its beaches and beautiful 2.3-mile waterfront promenade.

So what was once a raised freeway has been replaced by paths that connect the two for the first time in decades, according to a news release from the partnership.

Other key parts of Tunnel Tops include:

• Presidio Plaza: This will serve as an arrival point and gathering place as well as prime people-watching. It will also be the hub for the PresidiGo Shuttle (a free service to and around the park).

• Cliff Walk and Overlooks: The Cliff Walk follows the edge of the bluff some 30 feet (9 meters) above Crissy Field and the bay and “offers sculpted driftwood benches made from fallen Presidio Cypress trees.” The walk will also feature three overlooks, including one that looks toward Alcatraz, the former notorious prison turned National Park site.

• Presidio Steps: These terraces will connect the Cliff Walk to the Outpost, a two-acre outdoor play area for children. They face the Golden Gate Bridge, so visitors can enjoy dramatic views.

• Field Station: Here, young people can explore the Presidio’s natural and cultural environment “through the lens of science, art, and imagination.”

Art murals, picnic areas, a campfire circle and meadows for kite-flying have also been added.

San Francisco provides plenty of urban hiking, and the Presidio Tunnel Tops should prove to make a great starting point or terminus for a robust outing.

Donors to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy raised $98 million to help to build the park. The overall project budget was $118 million, with the Presidio Trust contributing $20 million towards the project. Groundbreaking started in the fall of 1999.

This rendering shows the Campfire Circle, with a central gas firepit and seating for up to 75. It's planned as a spot for ranger talks or community gatherings.(James Corner Field Operations)
This rendering shows the Campfire Circle, with a central gas firepit and seating for up to 75. It’s planned as a spot for ranger talks or community gatherings.(James Corner Field Operations) 

What this means to San Francisco tourism

San Francisco is abundant with classic attractions: Golden Gate Park, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Chinatown and the Palace of Fine Arts, among many others. How will the new kid stand out?

“The Presidio is one of San Francisco’s unique attractions — a national park destination within an urban destination. Still, some travelers are not as familiar with the Presidio as they are with the city’s other iconic sights,” said Hubertus Funke, executive vice president and chief tourism officer of the San Francisco Travel Association.

“The high-profile opening of Presidio Tunnel Tops will elevate the park’s global profile, and it will become a ‘must-see’ attraction.”

He said Presidio Tunnel Tops will offer “diverse programming reflecting the Bay Area’s cultural vibrancy. … It’s an incredible enhancement to one of the country’s most beautiful and most visited national parks.”

he Outpost play area for children (and the young at heart) is seen under construction.(Rachel Styer)
he Outpost play area for children (and the young at heart) is seen under construction.(Rachel Styer) 

Opening day festivities

A private ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Saturday, July 16.

Hours for the public’s opening day are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, July 17. The Sunday event is free.

You can get there via the PresidoGo shuttle, Muni bus 43 (with direct service to the Presidio Transit Center) and Muni bus 30 (with direct service to nearby Crissy Field).

There’s also paid parking if you want to brave the streets of San Francisco by car, and bike sharing is available to rent.

It will be a diverse opening day with entertainment that includes Afro-Latin dance, bilingual poetry readings, a ranger talk at the new Campfire Circle and more.

Food trucks featuring Bay Area cuisine will be on hand, and social justice activist Favianna Rodriguez will unveils a temporary mural installation called “Ancestral Futurism: Looking Back to Repair the Future.”

Having trouble picturing it all? Click here for a handy interactive map to help you get your bearings.

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This rendering is of Golden Gate Meadow. It's meant to be a gathering area surrounded by gardens, tall native grasses and perennials. The park plans it to be used for picnics, kite-flying and connecting with nature.(James Corner Field Operations)
This rendering is of Golden Gate Meadow. It’s meant to be a gathering area surrounded by gardens, tall native grasses and perennials. The park plans it to be used for picnics, kite-flying and connecting with nature.(James Corner Field Operations)