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Alcatraz Island Plan Envisions Big Break for Visitors

July 24, 1988|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It's not in the cards to turn Alcatraz into a casino, gangsterland wax museum, theme park, home for abandoned dogs and cats, shelter for abused monkeys and other primates, or even another prison.

"Ideas like these are tired and old, though they get recycled every so often," explained Howard Levitt, management assistant for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "The gambling proposal was first mentioned 20 years ago." It was as unsuccessful then as it was this spring, when it failed to qualify for the June city ballot.

Sure, the 22-acre island guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay is a prime piece of real estate, but it is also a national historic landmark. It got that designation after a citizens' "Save Alcatraz" campaign superseded city and county action that had accepted a proposal by Texas oil millionaire Lamar Hunt to develop it commercially.

Instead, then-Interior Secretary Walter Hickel ordered studies that resulted in the 1972 creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, of which Alcatraz is a part. To change the island's status now would take a California constitutional amendment and an act of Congress.

And as Lawrence Halprin sees it, "If that worked for Alcatraz, why wouldn't it work for Yosemite or Yellowstone? The casino proposal died a natural death."

Halprin is a landscape architect who developed the master plan for Sea Ranch in Sonoma County. He designed Bunker Hill Stairs to connect the Crocker Bank Building with the Central Library project in downtown Los Angeles, and he is redesigning the west lawn of the Central Library as a park.

He has been working for 18 months on a plan, announced in May, titled "Alcatraz: The Future."

Commissioned by the nonprofit Golden Gate National Park Assn., the plan outlines what needs to be done to allow visitors to enjoy the entire island, a goal articulated in the island's 1980 general plan. Only 20% of Alcatraz, primarily the cell house, has been accessible since the island was opened to the public in 1973.

Levitt acknowledged in his Ft. Mason office, that "80% is off limits, largely for safety reasons."

Indian Occupation

Most of the buildings were deteriorating when the prison was closed in 1963, and several structures were burned in 1970 when a handful of American Indians left after a 19-month occupation.

Halprin's plan, created with the help of 110 people (planners, architects, playwrights, engineers, park rangers and others, including Levitt), suggests putting seating areas in burned-out shells, such as the warden's house, and converting intact structures to such uses as a mid-range-price inn and a hostel.

A long building where prisoners once worked could be turned into "an architectural winter garden," according to the plan.

It would house a restaurant and cafe court, places to just sit and look at the views, and "studios for the arts and places where research and learning in history, ecology and other appropriate topics can occur."

No 'Yuppie Haven'

Another building might be preserved as a meeting and seminar center. Still another, built in 1857, with a drawbridge and a chapel, and an adjacent structure, once a carpenter's shop, could be used as a bookstore and museum.

"We don't want to 'boutiquize' Alcatraz," Halprin stressed. "We don't want to make it a yuppy haven."

The buildings probably won't be renovated for several years, because changes at Alcatraz depend mostly on private contributions. The $5 round-trip boat ride (there is no entry fee) and $2 rental charge for a self-guided audiotape tour go toward maintenance.

The first alterations will be simple. As Levitt put it: "The three most exciting ideas to us in an immediate sense are (1) creation of a trail around the perimeter of the island; (2) landscaping and cleaning up the parade ground, and (3) improving the dock and arrival area, along with creation of needed support services, like (permanent) restrooms."

Mystery to Many

Cost figures and a timetable won't be available until Halprin completes engineering studies in another 18 months. He expects the first phase, which Levitt described, to take five or six years, but Levitt said, "It is possible that within 15 to 18 months we could begin to open up segments, like the perimeter trail."

Until then, most of the island will remain a mystery to many, much as it did when all a tourist could see, on a clear day, were the towers and walls through a telescope at Fisherman's Wharf, 1 miles away, or the lighthouse and signs while passing by in a boat. (Private boats are still not allowed to dock at Alcatraz.)

One sign still there reads: "Warning: Persons procuring or concealing escape of prisoners are subject to prosecution and imprisonment."

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