A Glimpse into the Future of Getting to Alcatraz

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A view from the water of the proposed Alcatraz ferry landing and welcome center at Pier 31 1/2 on San Francisco's Embarcadero. (Photo: Courtesy of EHDD Architects)

Waiting for the ferry to Alcatraz isn’t nearly as much fun as being on the iconic island itself. The lines are often long and there’s little to do while you wait in them.

Now, the National Park Service, Port of San Francisco and Parks Conservancy are working on a plan they hope will make the wait worthwhile.

"We’re reorganizing the site to better serve the many people who visit Alcatraz each year," says Dena Kennett, a landscape architect for the National Park Service and project team member, in a recent phone interview.

"The proposal is for greatly improved operations," says Brian Aviles, the park's chief of planning. "Right now, the site is kind of chaotic."

Plans for the proposed entrance to Pier 31 1/2.
Plans for the proposed entrance to Pier 31 1/2. (Photo: Courtesy of EHDD Architects)

Designed by the San Francisco firms EHDD Architecture and CMG Landscape Architecture, the redeveloped area comprising Pier 31 1/2 as well as parts of Piers 31 and 33, will include:

  • Indoor parking: Aviles says about a third of the site is currently a parking lot. "The area is gobbled by cars," Aviles says. The plans will move the vehicles indoors, into the shed structure at Pier 31 1/2.
  • Welcome center: The large, currently disused historic building at Pier 33 will be transformed into a visitors' welcome center. "Right now, the building is miserable," Aviles says. "We’re going to restore it, and open it up to provide orientation, exhibits, a bookstore, and offices for the people running the ferry service, including ticket sales."
  • Cafe: A new eatery will be installed in the presently unoccupied shed at Pier 31 1/2. "The cafe will be where people disembark," says Kennett. "There will also be outdoor space with a canopy for lingering and meeting groups."
  • Public plazas: Kennett says the civic spaces around the ferry landing and associated buildings will be designed as an extension of the Embarcadero, with a paved surface and fixed seating. "It needs to be comfortable for up to a thousand people," Kennett says. "It needs to be a flexible and welcoming space."
  • Interpretive elements: Visitors will still have to line up outside to catch the Alcatraz ferry. But the developers plan to install canopies and what Kennett describes as "interpretive elements embedded into site fixtures" to educate visitors about the history and cultural significance of The Rock before they board. "We want the site to show the whole story of Alcatraz, including the Native American occupation, protecting the natural resources of the island, and the history of protests that took place there," Kennett says.
Site Plan
Site Plan, (Photo: Courtesy of CMG Landscape Architecture)

Aviles, together with four project partners -- Robert Tranter of EHDD Architecture, Cathie Barner of the Parks Conservancy, the Port of San Francisco's Dan Hodapp and CMG Landscape Architecture's Scott Cataffa -- shared their vision for the site at a Jan. 30 public meeting at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).


"Our big thought was to organize the site a little bit better," Cataffa says. "We want to clear the center space out, open up the views of the water and organize the program amenities to make the experience much clearer."

Aviles says the total budget for the project will come in at more than $20 million, and that the money to pay for the redevelopment of the site will come from the ferry operator -- not the taxpayer.

The National Park Service announced Thursday that it is seeking proposals from ferry service providers for the concession, including the current contractor, Hornblower Cruises & Events. Aviles adds he does not expect tickets to Alcatraz to go up in price as a result of the improvements.

Audience members from the Jan 30. event offer varying responses to the plan.

Members of the Alcatraz ferry landing and plaza project team discuss the plans at SPUR in downtown San Francisco on Jan. 30, 2018.
Members of the Alcatraz ferry landing and plaza project team discuss the plans at SPUR in downtown San Francisco on Jan. 30, 2018. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"When you look at what's there now it's kind of a hodgepodge of stuff, so it'll be nice to open up waterfront so that the public can get down there and actually see the water," says structural engineer Alan Kren.

But Kren also expresses reservations about the budget. "These types of projects always tend to cost more than people really want to think that they're going to cost," Kren says. "They're difficult renovations over structures that are over the water that people tend to have ignored for a long time because they only see what's up on top. Doing what's on top is pretty straightforward, but what's underneath can be a little bit difficult and that's where the money gets spent. But nobody wants to spend it there."

Meanwhile, Academy of Art architecture and design student Leslie Onumbu expressed excitement about the vision for the Alcatraz landing and welcome center, but says he felt the panelists were too vague about sustainability issues.

"They talked about LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- an internationally recognized green building certification system] and they talked about materials," Onumbu says. "But I can't really pinpoint and say OK, this is extremely sustainable."

View of the proposed site from above.
View of the proposed site from above. (Photo: Courtesy of EHDD Architects)

Early work on the plan did include an extensive environmental impact study. Aviles says improved emissions controls on ferries is an important part of the redevelopment project and that the new and refurbished structures will include sustainable materials.

Kennett says historical preservation is also a key consideration. This includes preserving the facades of the old buildings. "We don't want to compete with the historical elements but complement them," Kennett says.

Aviles says the proposal will go before San Francisco's board of supervisors in March or April. If approved, the transformation will take around five years, with no expected service interruptions.