Relocating Alcatraz ferry landing raises more questions

Alcatraz ferry embarkation sites under consideration at Fort Mason (photo: national park service)

In October 2006, the Marina Times reported on neighborhood concerns over plans to relocate the Alcatraz ferry service from its existing location. The National Park Service (NPS) had awarded a new, 10-year contract to Hornblower Cruises & Events, which planned to move ferry services from Pier 41 to Pier 31½. Citizens to Save the Waterfront and the Telegraph Hill Dwellers associations filed a lawsuit to stop the move, concerned over the impact 1.3 million passengers would have on an already busy stretch of waterfront and its surrounding neighborhoods. The lawsuit ultimately failed, and Hornblower has been transporting passengers daily from Pier 31½ ever since.

Six years later, bayside dwellers are once again raising concerns over where 1.4 million visitors a year will continue to catch their ride to the Rock.

On June 1, a “Notice of Intent” was published in the Federal Register announcing the start of the environmental impact statement (EIS) process for the establishment of a new Alcatraz ferry embarkation point. The federal notice allows for public comment
through July 31, 2012.

The current contract for ferry service ends in 2016 and the NPS wants to establish a long-term solution before that contract is renewed – “long-term” meaning 50 years or more.

The NPS believes that renegotiating contracts every 10 years “has led to visitor confusion, community concerns, and inconsistency in visitor support services.” From the community’s point of view, having a longer-term solution would eliminate debates that are now raised every 10 years. However, the outcome of one contract decision could affect a single neighborhood for more than half a century in the new proposal.

The Notice of Intent identifies potential ferry terminal sites under consideration based on a feasibility study completed last year. Those sites include Port of San Francisco Piers 19½, 29½, 31½, 41 (the terminal prior to 2006), and Pier 45. Also on the list are all NPS-owned piers at Fort Mason Center. If other sites that meet the project criteria are presented during the scoping process, they also could be considered.

The EIS will also be evaluating the potential for a secondary ferry service offering a cross-bay connection from San Francisco to Sausalito and/or Fort Baker.

The first of only two scoping meetings was held on June 26 at Upper Fort Mason. In the National Park Service’s new public comment format, there is no agency presentation or public discussion of a proposal’s merits or failings. Instead, individual comments are written down by staff on large easel pads, but pages are turned, disappearing from public view, as new comments are written down. Some people feel there is little that is “communal” about this type of community input.

The purpose of the scoping sessions is to help raise questions that should be addressed in the EIS, but the public is usually more interested in answers. None could be given regarding the economic impact on the Embarcadero or Fisherman’s Wharf or Fort Mason Center with any given move; or how ferry wakes would impact existing marinas or waterside structures; or how parking would be mitigated when there are 4,297 parking lot spaces within walking distance of Piers 31–45, but only 738 near the Fort Mason piers. But with the questions raised, the answers should now be included in the EIS.

Making this story even more of a summer rerun is the fact that in 2006 the NPS entered into a 60-year lease with the Fort Mason Foundation to take over management and revitalization of Fort Mason Center. To that end, Fort Mason just received 15 responses from the 20 design firms invited to participate in a competition to revitalize the Fort’s Pier 1 – the same pier being eyed by the NPS for an Alcatraz ferry site.

With the pier needing $30 million dollars in restoration work, participants were requested to propose a use that would be economically sustainable while fitting with Fort Mason’s mission: “To create and preserve a cultural, educational and recreational center that reflects the unique history, talents and interests of the people in the Bay Area, in partnership with the National Park Service.”

The question is whether the NPS feels that adding one tenant and 1.4 million visitors to Fort Mason’s existing 1.6 million visitors will be a good partnership. We may have to wait for the EIS to learn the answer.

Written comments on the Alcatraz Ferry Embarkation will be accepted through July 31. For more information, visit

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