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Alcatraz Island ferry service receives pardon to remain at Pier 31½

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A rendering shows a new cafe at Pier 31 and a retail and visitor station planned at Pier 33 as part of a new 50-year lease to continue Alcatraz Island ferry service through the Port of San Francisco. (Courtesy National Park Service)
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Alcatraz Island ferry service appears to have been granted a stay of execution to remain along San Francisco’s northeastern waterfront.

The Port of San Francisco is poised to lock down a new 50-year lease to continue ferry operations to Alcatraz after an agreement was reached in recent weeks with the National Park Service, which manages Alcatraz as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Port has hosted ferry service to Alcatraz since the former federal prison opened to the public in 1972.

The proposed lease terms with the park service, scheduled for presentation to the Port Commission in an informational hearing Tuesday, includes 30 years plus two 10-year options and is projected to earn the Port some $53 million over the next three decades.

Per the agreement, the NPS will continue providing ferry service to Alcatraz from Pier 31½, as well as add a third berth for additional ferry service to the popular tourist destination that receives more than 1.5 million visitors each year.

“It’s important for us to keep Alcatraz on our waterfront,” said Elaine Forbes, the Port’s interim executive director. “It’s a really important attraction that brings a lot of people to the waterfront.”

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The proposal also includes building a new cafe at Pier 31, which is currently vacant, and a retail and visitor station in the Pier 33 bulkhead. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a local nonprofit partner to the NPS, would operate the cafe and retail space.

NPS has previously evaluated three sites along The City’s waterfront for potential long-term ferry embarkations, including Fort Mason and Pier 41, where service was originally offered until the past decade.

Securing a new agreement to keep ferry service at Pier 31½ near Fisherman’s Wharf, the Alcatraz embarkation since 2006, had initially proved difficult in part because of the “deficiencies in providing the desired high-quality visitor experience” at Pier 31½, the federal agency noted in a draft environmental impact statement last year.

But the potential for renovations at the site has proved attractive enough to entice the park service to continue operating its ferry service at Pier 31½.

The lease “constitutes a milestone [because] it solidifies the location for the departure to this incredibly popular and important destination, Alcatraz,” said Howard Levitt, a spokesperson for the park service. “It establishes this for the long term. It will keep us from moving from place to place along the waterfront.”

The lease is set to go before the Port Commission for a vote likely next month, and must be approved by the Board of Supervisors as well.

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