Proposition C - Alcatraz Global Peace Center

Voter Guide
February 1, 2008
This measure appeared on the February 2008 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

Proposition C is a declaration of policy that states that the City of San Francisco should “acquire Alcatraz from the United States government and transform Alcatraz Island into a Global Peace Center.” The declaration of policy is not binding on any City departments, and it would not compel the National Park Service or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to turn over Alcatraz to the City of San Francisco or to any other entity.

Why it is on the ballot

The measure was placed on the ballot through signatures. The proponents submitted approximately 18,000 signatures — more than the required 10,500. The chief proponent is the director of the Global Peace Foundation, who spent $30,000 with the help of two others to hire signature-gatherers.

The idea for transforming Alcatraz goes back to 1978: Following a “music healing experience” on Mt. Tamalpais, the proponents had the revelation that they believed it would be desirable to transform the island from a historic site of a former prison into a site that incorporates domes and pyramids. Over the subsequent years, the idea evolved and has been presented at artistic events and as part of Native American ceremonies.

In the past year, the proponent brought the idea to the Board of Supervisors to see if any of the supervisors were interested either in sponsoring the measure as either legislation, or in supporting it as one of four supervisors required to place the matter onto the ballot. The proponent was unsuccessful in securing a co-sponsor at the Board of Supervisors, and decided to go gather signatures instead.

Pros

Arguments in favor of the measure:

  • The Bay Area and San Francisco always have been at the forefront of ideas related to global peace, and this measure would continue that tradition.

Cons

Arguments against the measure:

  • The buildings on Alcatraz are extremely significant historic buildings. It would be wrong to remove them for a use that could just as easily go somewhere else. There is no logical reason to locate a peace center on such an isolated place as Alcatraz.
  • The correct place to begin a discussion about changing Alcatraz is at the federal level, given that the City has no control over the island. This idea should have begun there.
  • Changing the use of the island could have negative environmental repercussions. Everything must be transported to Alcatraz via boat, including fresh water. Changing the use to one that may increase overall visitors to the island not only could pose a threat to the natural ecology of the island but also could cause additional emissions from boat travel in the Bay.
  • San Francisco already has a Global Peace Center in the Presidio. There is no need for an additional and potentially competing peace center.
  • The proponents have not thought through the many logistical and legal challenges to their proposal, as they should have done prior to placing this measure onto the ballot. Several of the structures on Alcatraz Island, such as the main prison block, are historic landmarks that cannot be taken down and replaced by new buildings.
  • The proposal relies on the federal government declaring Alcatraz a surplus property and transferring ownership to the City. This assumption misses an important federal law that suggests that prior to considering any existing federal property abandoned, the federal government must first consider using it to house the homeless (this is one of the reasons that Treasure Island has housing for formerly homeless individuals).

SPUR’s analysis

There is a long history of interest in and contentious use of Alcatraz. The barren rock was inhabited only by sea birds for most of its history. In 1850, the new state of California turned it into a military base. During the Civil War it was home to war prisoners and remained a military prison until the mid-1920s. From 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison run by the Department of Justice. After the prison closed, the island lay fallow.

In 1969, a group of Native Americans took over the island in a symbolic demonstration, claiming the property belonged to Native Americans. Part of their argument was that abandoned federal property should be ceded back to the original owners. Various groups of Native Americans and supporters remained on the island until removed by federal marshals in 1971. Subsequently, Alcatraz Island became part of the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area and an important tourism destination. Each year, 1.5 million people visit Alcatraz. The revenue from these tourists is shared between the ferry companies that bring people to the island and the National Park Service, which manages the island.

The proposal to turn Alcatraz into a Global Peace Center would suggest a major disruption to a current activity which has been successful and popular for several decades. Regardless of the merits of the idea — and we think it has few — this measure simply will not work. The federal government will not give the island to the City of San Francisco. The proponents should consider working with the Federal government on incremental changes such as incorporating a statue of St. Francis onto the island.

SPUR recommends a “No” vote on Prop. C.