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Meeting of Minds

How a city, a national park and a resort crafted a gorgeous eco-retreat by the bridge



Mike Freed, managing director for Passport Resorts (left) and Tom Sargent, principal of Equity Community Builders.

Photos by Tim Porter

One day in 1998, Mike Freed was walking his Rhodesian Ridgeback near Cavallo Point in the former military post Fort Baker. As he stood in that dreamy old place too beauteous for battle contemplating the magical views of San Francisco Bay and the city skyline, he recalled business partner Peter Heinemann telling him there was a proposal for the area, soon to be part of the Golden Gate National Parks National Park Service, to be developed into a retreat and conference center of up to 350 rooms.

Freed and Heinemann had both felt such a project was too large.

“I told him I wasn’t interested,” says Freed, managing director for Passport Resorts, whose properties include the environmentally responsible Post Ranch Inn, Hotel Hana-Maui and Honua Spa, and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort. “Neither of us thought it the right match for the site at all.”

Soon after, again while walking his dog at Fort Baker, Freed stopped to talk to Jane Woodman, who chaired Sausalito’s Citizens’ Task Force on Fort Baker. She said some of the big hotel chains, including Marriott, were eyeing the site like a cat eyes cream. Once she found out what business Freed was in, she urged him to make a proposal.

Freed, then a resident of Sausalito, again demurred, but he was intrigued enough to start investigating the subject with Heinemann and soon found himself dreaming about what might work and what he might like to create on the site.

A Decade in the Making

Ten years and $99 million later, we see the culmination of that dream in Cavallo Point–the Lodge at the Golden Gate. The Bay Area’s first urban national-park lodge, it sits in one of the world’s most visually arresting settings: at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge where the undulating bay meets the thrashing Pacific.

Cavallo Point, which opened in June and was immediately rated one of 31 top summer destinations by the New York Times, is part of a revitalization that restored Fort Baker, preserved the verdant national parklands surrounding it and created access (for the public as well as lodge guests) to a range of recreational and cultural activities, from naturalist-led hikes to wellness classes.

Getting here took a vision, amply articulated by Freed and several other Marin residents, that entailed converting Fort Baker, whose roots extend to the the Civil War era, into something that not only paid homage to its history, but was self-sustaining and respectful of the site’s fragile nature. It’s also an example of how compromise between competing interests can ultimately make everyone happy.

The road to redevelopment was not a smooth one. The early National Park Service environmental impact statement, released in 1998 and allowing for the conference center and retreat, was opposed by the city of Sausalito, whose leaders feared car traffic to and from the hotel would further clog the already crowded streets of their picturesque former fishing village.

A long and contentious battle between the city and the park service ensued, with the U.S. District Court eventually ruling against Sausalito. The city appealed, and though most of its case was discounted, it won on a couple of key points.

At 350 rooms, the retreat would have been nearly as big as San Francisco’s landmark Mark Hopkins hotel, which has 380 rooms. “I thought, ‘definitely not here,’” says four-time Sausalito Mayor Amy Belser. “There’s one lane in and one lane out and although every road can be widened, we didn’t want that. The site is so captivating and it just needed to be protected and restored and made what it could be. And the happy part of all this is that I think they have achieved that.”

Belser spent eight years working on the Fort Baker issue, starting with a letter to the park service outlining Sausalito’s concerns. That led to talks between the city, the park service and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who secured $14.1 million in federal funds for infrastructure for Fort Baker, separate from the $99 million raised for development of Cavallo Point.

“We talked with all these people like Lynn who really cared,” says Belser. “And I am sure that the park service cared, too, but they mostly were concerned with what would make financial sense for them, how they were going to afford and support the site. There were some dire moments and we weren’t always friends. The park service had legitimate concerns but so did we. I wanted to find someone who would preserve what I wanted preserved while also making it economically viable. And we finally achieved that with all parties involved. The restoration is simply gorgeous.”

A Powerful Partnership

In 1999, when the NPS and the nonprofit Parks Conservancy began an extensive screening process to find a developer for Fort Baker, Freed knew he could not enter the competition alone. In what would become a unique partnership between public and private interests, he got together with Tom Sargent, principal of San Francisco–based green builder Equity Community Builders, who also built the Thoreau Center for Sustainability at San Francisco’s Presidio, to form the Fort Baker Retreat Group LLC.

“Notwithstanding the reference to 350 rooms in the environmental impact statement, it was clear from the study that the NPS wanted the smallest economically viable project,” says Freed.  “At meetings, the NPS emphasized that the smallest project with the least traffic impact stood the best chance of being selected.”

To that end, both the park service and the Retreat Group hired a traffic engineer to study optimal traffic patterns for such a project. Freed’s team concluded a facility with around 150 rooms would work. In April 2001, the park service invited four firms—among them Freed and Sargent’s Fort Baker Retreat Group—to fashion a detailed proposal. Freed and Sargent submitted a plan that proposed no more than 150 rooms and included a guaranteed space for establishment of a new organization, the Institute at the Golden Gate (see sidebar on page 91), that would focus on issues of environmental stewardship.

In May 2002, the park service selected the Retreat Group for exclusive negotiations. Design and construction drawings were begun in 2005, the same year Sausalito and the park service reached an out-of-court agreement that set the limit on overnight rooms at 225. Construction on Cavallo Point began in December 2006. The Fort Baker Retreat Group has a 60-year lease on the site that pays $400,000 annually to the park service for public safety, maintenance and other operations fees.

A Win, Win, Win

The result was a deal that depended on what Freed calls “the synergy between public, private and nonprofit” in which everyone sacrificed something to gain something.

Freed and Sargent built what they like to think of as the Bay Area version of Yosemite National Park’s famed Ahwahnee Hotel, but with fewer rooms. The park service got a project that could have generated more money, but instead ensured a redevelopment of Fort Baker it could not have afforded and the promise that income from the Retreat Group will preserve the site’s beauty. Sausalito got an acceptable number of extra tourists, while seeing development reduced to levels it could live with. The Parks Conservancy got a spectacular space to conduct important environmental education. And the Bay Area got access to more jobs, a good restaurant, a spa, lifestyle and environmental programs, and a large trail system.

“This was not a one-man show,” says Sargent. “An unusually cooperative and creative group of people came together and sacrificed collectively to save a landmark in an extraordinary location.”

And though some involved in the difficult process still find some of what went on hard for them to forgive, both sides now agree the
result makes it all worthwhile. “What happened was what was best for Sausalito, Fort Baker and the owners of the national park, who are the citizens of the United States,” task force leader Woodman says.

Ultimately, Freed and Sargent built a site with only 142 rooms, many fewer than they could have. How is that good business?

Customarily, “in the hospitality world, Wall Street needs to achieve a quick return on the dollar to maximize the project value right away,” acknowledges Freed, a former lawyer whose silver beard and uniform of jeans and casual shirt belies the stereotype. “In that world, the larger the numbers of rooms, the more—arguably—money you make. Our group is different. We’re not flippers. I have spent half my life involved with Post Ranch Inn and almost 10 years doing this project. This is a real treasure—a long-term investment—and we’re not looking for a quick return.”

“Fort Baker was a military village,” says Greg Moore, executive director of the Parks Conservancy. “Now it’s going to be a civilian village in a national park. This project provides lodging for overnight guests but also provides meeting space that responds to the National Parks’ preservation and environmental mission.”

Brian O’Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says the park service never wanted a large hotel. “It was wonderful when the Fort Baker Retreat Group came in with a proposal on a smaller scale that respected the purposes of what is a national park site and was so sensitive to the fragility of the site. What their proposal did was to include historic preservation, foster environmental stewardship and create a business atmosphere that’s profitable.”

Where Horses Roamed

Fort Baker and its environs have a storied past. The name Cavallo dates back to 1775, when the Spanish supply vessel San Carlos sailed into San Francisco Bay and its commander named a rocky point near Fort Baker “Punta de Caballo” for the wild horses that galloped there. Early California settlers started using “Cavallo” and the sobriquet stuck. In 1866, the U.S. Army acquired the site for a base to fortify the north side of the Golden Gate. Fort Baker remained active through World War II; in 1972, when the Golden Gate National Parks were established, it was designated to be transferred to the park service. The base officially changed from post to park in 2002.

Freed and Sargent were committed to honoring the site’s history while also creating a retreat center that both respected the environment and provided a comfortable, luxurious setting. They restored rather than razed 29 historic white two-story buildings, among them 11 of the bayside Colonial Revival–style brick duplexes built between 1901 and 1915 that surround Fort Baker’s central 14-acre parade ground. Originally officers’ residences, barracks and a gym, four of the buildings around the parade ground now house the hotel reception and the restaurant Murray Circle, with its locally produced organic fare overseen by two-star Michelin chef Joseph Humphrey of San Rafael; the adjacent Farley Bar, named for the late San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank; event spaces; a cooking school; and a wine-tasting room.

The remaining seven parade-ground buildings now are home to 68 simple but stylish rooms and suites, many offering vistas of the bridge, bay, Alcatraz and San Francisco. All were restored with the aid of archival photographs.

The rooms ended up to be larger than most because the group refused to cut up the original officers quarters into small rooms. “Many of our rooms are junior, regular and two-bedroom suites” says Freed. “We ended up with fewer rooms, but larger than the norm.”

Each of the restored rooms has authentic pressed-tin ceilings that were de-leaded and reinstalled, along with the original wood floors, hand-carved stairways and fireplaces, highly desirable in a San Francisco summer. Local artisans used reclaimed materials to make furniture and accessories. Artist Jim Misener created lamps from old surveyor tripods and lampshades made with early park service or Fort Baker maps.

In green building, “reuse is the number one rule,” says Sargent, who was required to maintain the integrity of the old construction—including not removing any original windows—yet integrated LEED design standards as well. “If you’re using old material, you’re not making new material to create most of the project. We did a lot of recycling.” In the common buildings, the counter in Farley Bar and the table in the wine room were fashioned from a reclaimed fallen walnut tree in San Anselmo where Sargent lives. “It’s really fun to bring something back to life.”

In addition, the Retreat Group rebuilt the rotting porches on all of the lodging houses and, in accordance with original plans and photos, returned the early 1904 two-level porches for the reception and restaurant buildings. Rocking chairs on those porches are key components of Sargent’s desire to create a porch culture. “We wanted more of a social feeling here than you find in a regular hotel. We’re committed not only to have you stay with us but also to foster an exchange of views between people—and porches help with that.”

The Retreat Group was also required to landscape the 30 acres of land that were restored, and to use plants native to the site. Of the more than 58,000 plants, 30,000 were raised from seeds collected in adjacent parklands and grown in park service nurseries. Cars are discouraged on the grounds and guests are invited to walk, bike or take a shuttle.

In the contemporary section of the resort, 14 new buildings housing 74 rooms and suites were built not on virgin land but on the pads of several former 1960s nonhistoric army homes. The views from the uppermost newer rooms are the site’s most dramatic: when you brush your teeth, the Golden Gate Bridge is reflected in the mirror before you. The buildings feature solar panels embedded into the steel roofs; radiant heating; low-VOC glues, paints and carpets; denim wall insulation; low-E glass windows to suppress heat loss; and headboards made from bamboo. All rooms feature plush Coyuchi organic linens, flat-panel HD televisions and Wi-Fi access.

A Place for Retreat — and Activity

The lodge’s new 11,000-square-foot spa offers everything from massages and facials to nutritionist and acupuncture sessions. There is a tea bar with light fare and handcrafted herbal drinks, a basking pool and apothecary. Spa guests can select their own massage oil infused with local herbs.

The spa is open to the public, as are the restaurant, bar and various programs. “The community is an important part of our concept,” says Freed, and the cross-pollination of uses for the site enhances that beneficial aspect. “We have the largest urban park in the country and the goal for the park service and the conservancy and the lodge is to have the lodge as a center for hospitality, learning and community impact.”

Guests can do yoga in the hilltop chapel and join guided wildflower walks in the Marin Headlands. They can pursue personal growth in multi-day “learning vacations” focusing on the culinary or creative arts or fitness and wellness adventures. San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins and chef Dan Barber of Manhattan’s Blue Hill Restaurant are leading two-day to three-day programs at the culinary school, starting September 9 and November 9, respectively. Participants can bone up on the slow food movement, tour the area’s myriad organic farms, wineries and farmers’ markets, and discover firsthand how to select and prepare seasonal, sustainable fish and shellfish. There are creative arts courses in knitting and animation, hiking and biking on miles of easily accessible trails, and the opportunity to take a scenic run with ultra-marathon man Dean Karnazes along the Marin Headlands.

“One reason I really cared about what happened to Fort Baker is that I knew that whatever was the result of all our efforts would be there forever,” says Sausalito Mayor Belser. “I thought, how can you build this great big development and have people bumping into each other in the sanctity of a place like that? A piece of geography as beautiful as that should not be compromised. Today, it hardly looks like anything has changed. And yet it has, and that’s because of the efforts of the Fort Baker Retreat Group.”

Institute for the Earth

The Institute at the Golden Gate, a project of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service, was conceived as a catalyst for action at a time of unprecedented public awareness of such environmental concerns as climate change. In November 2009, the institute, based in one of Cavallo Point’s restored buildings, will partner in a program with the newly formed Aspen Environment Forum, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic magazine.

“This is an invaluable opportunity to use the area as a world-class site for everything the park does, to get the community involved and to have private interests be represented,” says Cleve Justis, the Parks Conservancy’s director of programs and strategic initiatives. “A key part of this was to make sure we are engaging the local, regional and world community on the environment with free lectures and many other programs.”

The institute will host conferences for policy makers and global government and business leaders. Qualified organizations will receive special reduced rates under an agreement between the institute and the lodge, with 10 percent of guest rooms set aside for environmental group use each year. “The lodge is not just a luxury hotel,” Justis says. “Yes, it’s comfortable, but there will be an intellectual and community component here.”

The Bay Area will benefit in many ways, he adds. The institute “will bring the big names in the green world out here and give the local community access to them.” To that end, Tony Perkins, a founder of Red Herring magazine, is mounting his “Going Green” conference at Cavallo Point September 15 to 17.
—M.B.
 


FEATURED LINK: Amy Belser

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