Campus to unite filmmaker's studios

Only weeks after conquering the box office with his latest “Star Wars” installment, George Lucas on Monday won the rights to develop a $250 million “digital arts center” on 23 acres of San Francisco’s Presidio.

The Presidio Trust, set up by Congress to plot the future of the 1,500-acre former Army base in prime land at the northern end of the city, approved Lucasfilm Ltd.’s plan to create a campus-like setting that will house Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas Arts, Lucas Learning, THX, the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Lucas Online.

The separate companies are now scattered around the San Francisco Bay area and will let their current leases expire when their combined 1,600 employees begin moving into the new facility in 2002.

The facility will be able to accommodate up to 2,500 employees, “allowing us the chance to grow,” said Lucasfilm prexy Gordon Radley.

The first resident is expected to be f/x powerhouse ILM, which has been based in San Rafael for 20 years. ILM operated in Los Angeles from 1975 to ’77 before heading north after completing Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound are expected to remain at Skywalker Ranch, Radley said. The company plans to develop a second ranch just 10 miles from the current facility, Radley said.

Building a Presidio complex represents Lucas’ “chance to build the digital complex of the future,” Radley said.

The new complex, to be housed at the site of the shuttered Letterman Army Medical Center, slated for demolition, will take up 20.6 acres, with additional space set aside for an urban park, including a lagoon.

The project becomes the first redevelopment of the Presidio. Lucasfilm began vying for the land six months ago and beat out a rival plan that would have seen the park become the new home of Internet media player CNET Inc.

The Presidio Trust board of directors said the plan would give San Francisco a “vital, dynamic center of cutting edge technology.”

“The Digital Arts Center has the ability to enrich the Presidio with imagination and artistic focus, while embracing the research and education missions supported by the trust,” board chair Tony Rosenblatt said in a statement.

The Presidio Trust had previously said any company chosen to redevelop the Letterman site must show that its plan “is environmentally sustainable, preserves the historic essence of the Presidio and includes a comprehensive traffic-demand management plan.”

The competing plan, put together by developers Interland Corp. and Shorenstein Co., would have developed the site as a mix of housing units, offices and hotel conference space, with CNET as the anchor tenant.

The U.S. military handed the Presidio to the National Park Service in 1993 after the base was decommissioned. The Letterman development site, which is expected to bring in at least $5 million a year in rent, is part of a broader plan to help the Presidio earn the estimated $36 million it needs annually to become financially self-sufficient. That was a condition put on the Park Service when it took over the prime land from the military.

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