National Park Service Considering Commercial Developments for Alcatraz

Alcatraz. Note large barracks building to right of pier. Photo copyright Lee W. Nelson,

In a move certain to dismay many national park advocates, the National Park Service has proposed to convert to commercial use a number of buildings on Alcatraz, a popular component of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area . The proposed visitor services would include souvenir stands, special venues, and hotels.

Three proposed development scenarios have been drafted for discussion at a public hearing scheduled for Saturday, June 7, at the Fort Mason Center. As reported in The Examiner at this site, these include:

• Connecting People with the Parks: People could visit most of the island's historic buildings, landscapes and natural resources. Visitors would follow trails through the island's ecosystems all year around. Gull populations would be managed to prevent conflicts with tourist operations.

• Preserving and Enjoying Coastal Ecosystems: Some of the buildings would be preserved, while weather and wildlife would overrun the rest. Most of the shoreline would be preserved to protect natural habitat. A 300-foot-wide marine reserve would ring most of the island

• Focusing on National Treasures: The island's buildings would undergo extensive stabilization, rehabilitation and restoration. Prison-themed ferries would help showcase the island's history. A trail linking the island's landmarks would close down during bird-breeding season.

All three of the proposed plans call for converting the former barracks situated between the prison and the pier for use as a hotel or hostel. Some sections of the huge building, which is now quite dilapidated, might house shops, a post office, restaurants, classrooms, and rooms for meetings and special functions. Various outlying buildings would be rebuilt or refurbished and used as special events venues, restrooms, kitchens, and exhibition spaces.

Park officials say that these proposed developments fit into broad plans to boost tourism to the island and help people get more out of their Alcatraz visits. Overnight stays and related activities would immerse visitors in the historic prison’s “atmosphere of confinement and observation.”

Renowned for the grim federal prison that operated there from 1933 to 1963, Alcatraz has been part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1972. Today the historic prison draws an estimated 1.4 million visitors a year and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of California. But the Alcatraz structures are in terrible condition.

The inroads of time and corrosion (partly due to wind-driven salt spray) have combined to weaken many structural components at Alcatraz. Some areas of the prison complex are now too dangerous to allow public access. There is just not enough money in the budget to make the necessary repairs and improvements.

Faced with these grim realities, Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials have proven willing to experiment with money-raising programs and concepts that stray far from traditional practices and well into the commercial arena. Critics are crying foul and questioning whether the Park Service has forgotten what a national park is supposed to be.

Recent events have certainly not boosted confidence. In the early 2000s, park officials sold souvenir pieces of Alcatraz -- basically just chunks of debris -- to help fund renovation projects. However undignified this gimmick may have been, the end-justifies-the-means decision also raises the question of where the line on resource protection should be drawn and whether actions like this might encourage even more wretchedly inappropriate selling-off of national park resources.

Last year park officials did something even more controversial when they issued a permit allowing Toyota to throw a glitzy, high-energy party (“ExpreScion'07”) on Alcatraz to promote one of their car models. This is what the Chief of Golden Gate’s Special Park Uses division wrote in reply to a complaint about using a national park for a corporate promotional event of this type:

Thank you for your comment regarding the private event sponsored by Scion on June 16, 2007, on Alcatraz Island, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service issues special use permits to accommodate private tours and receptions on Alcatraz Island. These events are conducted after hours and are closely monitored by National Park Service staff to ensure compliance with permit conditions designed to prevent damage to park resources and maintain visitor safety.

All special events on Alcatraz Island are required to have an educational component. In the case of the Scion event, event organizers worked with National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy interpretation staff to design a program integrating ranger talks with dance performances, ecologically sustainable fashions, and an art gallery featuring original paintings, photographs and sculptures on the themes of Alcatraz and transformation. The art gallery will remain on display for several weeks, offering an enhanced experience of the island for visitors who are interested in art.

The National Park Service issues special use permits for a wide variety of commercial uses, including the filming of television and print advertisements for a variety of products and services. The National Park Service does not use the nationality of the applicant as a basis for granting or denying these permits.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to call me at (415) 561-4301. Thanks again for contacting the National Park Service.

OK, so now park officials want some historic structures on Alcatraz converted into souvenir stands, special venues, and lodging facilities. I wonder what sort of letter complainants will get this time around? Will it tout the educational virtues of hotel-fostered historical immersion? I guess we’ll know soon enough. Meanwhile, we might want to contemplate where decision making like this is taking the National Park System.


I hope that Park advocates take a balanced look at this proposal. I think that a "night on Alcatraz" experience has a lot of potential to add value to the Park. Additionally, since this is an island in the middle of the Bay, additional visitor services would certainly have the opportunity to enhance the visitor experience, and to make it more enjoyable and comfortable. If those services also generate funds for historic preservation and interpretation, so much the better....

It's a fine line between a national park being a "park" and a commercial attraction. A strict limit on commercialization would seem to be needed, allowing revenue for the park and at the same time the park is remaining true to it's purpose.

I went to Alcatraz a couple of years ago. They could use a place to get a bite of lunch. As I recall, if you got hungry there were no places to eat. While some visitor's services like food and restrooms to make the visit pleasant and comfortable are necessary, overnight lodging though seems unnecessary.

I can't believe that the folks who offered comments are familiar with the Management Guidelines for the NPS and the legislation that created Golden Gate NRA of which Alcatraz is a part. The National Landmark Statement of Significance says: "Begun as a military fortification and the site of the first US lighthouse on the Pacific Coast (1854), Alcatraz was the first offical Army prison in the Nation. In 1934, the facility was transferred to civilian authority and it became the repository for the most hardened criminals. Alcatraz represents the far end of the penological spectrum, designed for punishment and incarceration only, rather than rehabilitation. The prison was closed in 1963 and ten years later the island was opened to the public as the first unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area." Historic areas within the National Park System were not created to generate money for whatever reason. They were created to PRESERVE the historic resouces and EDUCATE the visitor of the value of the historic area.