Michael Painter, who conceived Presidio Parkway to replace SF’s Doyle Drive, dies
By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
July 5, 2018
Photo courtesy SF Chronicle
College of Environmental Design alumnus and renowned landscape architect Michael Painter, FASLA, (B.S. Landscape Architecture ‘56), whose vision of a more scenic commute to San Francisco was the spark for today’s Presidio Parkway, died June 29 of cancer at his home in Mill Valley. He was 83.
Painter, with neither a contract nor official status, was the person who made the case in the early 1990s that the best way to replace the hazardous Doyle Drive viaduct between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marina in San Francisco was to bring it mostly to ground level. Not only that, to cover part of it in landscaped tunnels so that people could walk from the Presidio’s historic Main Post down to Crissy Field.
First made public in 1992, his notion provided the conceptual framework for the expressway that opened in 2015. It was the capstone of a career that ranged across the country and included projects large and small.
“He was one of the most collaborative landscape architects I’ve ever met,” said Michael Boland, longtime head of planning at the Presidio Trust, which manages nearly all of the national park. “He constantly was sharing ideas, getting feedback and then refining them to make things better.”
Born in 1935 and raised in Southern California, Painter attended UC Berkeley and received his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture in 1956. That was followed a decade later by a master’s degree in urban design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
By that time, Painter was working with architect John Carl Warnecke and was overseeing the design for the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. After its completion, he returned to the Bay Area where in 1969 he opened his own firm, now MPA Design.
In the decades that followed, the firm did projects for such clients as AT&T and Genentech. His firm’s redesign in the 1980s of the Great Highway along Ocean Beach received an Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
But the birth of the Presidio Parkway was a personal crusade: By the early 1990s, Doyle Drive, an unsightly elevated roadway from the 1930s, was seen as perilous to drivers and seismically unsafe. At the same time, the U.S. Army was preparing to hand off the Presidio to the National Park Service.
Painter, meanwhile, was a board member of the Exploratorium and regularly commuted from Mill Valley to the city. To him, there was potential in turning an infrastructure upgrade into a scenic regional blessing.
“He often would think of jobs that other people weren’t doing,” recalled his wife of 59 years, Sue Painter. “His mind worked that way.”
As early as 1991, Painter was sketching out extensive depictions of a transformed landscape. One year later he unfurled a colored plan at least 10 feet long to the citizens advisory committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors to forge a consensus as to Doyle Drive’s fate.
Painter’s pro bono work continued for several years as the city pushed a reluctant Caltrans to embrace the concept of a parkway. It was 1999 before the parkway became an official option and 2012 before construction began.Painter served as a consultant to Caltrans during the later stages of the process, though the design was done by other firms. Landscaping of the land covering the tunnels, a priority of the Presidio Trust, won’t start before next year.
Throughout, Painter was fueled by his belief that his vision was the obvious approach.
“I looked at it as, here’s a fabulous location,” he said in 2014, when the planning advocacy group SPUR presented him an award for his contributions to the region. “Let’s do a fabulous design.”
Significant projects during Painter’s career include: San Francisco’s Great Highway and Ocean Beach; AT&T Administrative Center in San Ramon; Genentech’s campus in South San Francisco; the children’s playground in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; and Hewlett-Packard Campus, Grenoble, France.
A memorial will be scheduled for Painter next month.