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  6.  | Revitalizing Downtown as the Key to Reinvigorating All of Anchorage

Revitalizing Downtown as the Key to Reinvigorating All of Anchorage

by | Feb 28, 2024 | Architecture, Featured, Government, News, Real Estate

Aerial visualization looking over the Anchorage Bowl, overlaid with taxable value per acre by parcel, based on 2019 data from the municipal assessor, shows Downtown properties generate the most revenue by far.

Municipality of Anchorage Planning Department

Downtown Anchorage now has something no other city can boast: a Mushing District. Just in time for the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship last weekend, Mayor Dave Bronson signed the formal creation of the Mushing District, defined as Fourth Avenue from A Street to G Street, where sled dog teams muster for the Rondy and Iditarod race starts.

Downtown District

The district designation has been in place since 2019 by mayoral proclamation, so the signature is a more permanent step that lets Anchorage Mushing District, a nonprofit organizer, proceed with its vision. When complete, the district will be furnished with street sign toppers, light pole banners, interpretive signs, bronze paws in the pavement, and a decorative arch spanning the street.

The Mushing District is one example of revitalization efforts focused on Downtown. Another, one block away from the sled dog race starting line at D Street, is literally called the Downtown Revitalization Project. That’s how former mayor and US senator Mark Begich refers to his commercial redevelopment of the former Aviator Hotel and Post Office Mall.

At a luncheon this week hosted by the Society of Marketing Professional Services (SMPS)—which represents the architecture, engineering, and construction sector—Begich mentioned that the refurbished entrance to the hotel is set to open in mid-March. By that time, Iditarod mushers would have already reached Nome, but Begich says his hotel doesn’t cater solely to visitors who’ve come to see the Last Great Race.

Rather, Begich is building spaces for locals to gather which visitors can enjoy, too. He says that’s what his in-state financial backers want. He told the SMPS luncheon, “The first thing they don’t ask is ‘What’s the rate of return?’ What they ask us is, ‘How is this gonna change Downtown?’”

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The luncheon was held in the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, a building Begich championed as mayor. To build the center, he transformed the Anchorage Parking Authority into the Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA). The authority’s current executive director, Mike Robbins, also spoke at the luncheon, describing his role as “government but not government.” ACDA is empowered to negotiate directly with businesses and banks, something Robbins says is happening more frequently.

“We field calls on a regular basis from people who say, ‘Hey, we want to invest in Downtown; what’s going on?’ We get those calls almost weekly now, whereas the first six months [Robbins was appointed in June 2021], it was a very lonely place. We’re talking to a lot more folks now,” he told SMPS. He figures the recent investments total close to $750 million.

Radhika Krishna, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, has also noticed the shift in momentum. “I know there’s a little bit of doom and gloom,” she said at the luncheon, “but there are a lot of people investing in Downtown. There’s certainly more new development happening now than in the last twenty years.”

As examples, Krishna listed the opening of Block 96 Flats, a market-rate apartment building developed by Debenham Properties in partnership with ACDA. At an earlier stage, the Block 41 development has progressed as far as demolition of the Fourth Avenue Theatre and a neighboring building, with ambitious plans to construct new commercial and residential space.

Reimagining Connections

Early proposals reimagining the six blocks straddling D Street between Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue would convert abundant surface parking into hotels and apartments.

Anchorage Community Development Authority

Even more ambitious than Peach Investments’ plans for Block 41 is the “reimagining” of D Street. ACDA has embarked on an area-wide planning study for the corridor between Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue, encompassing six city blocks. The area is anchored by the JCPenney parking garage and vacant Nordstrom building, both under ACDA ownership since 2020. Surrounding smaller office buildings, though, is a plethora of surface parking. Converting horizontal pavement into vertical structures is part of the motivation behind the Anchorage Assembly’s recent revamp of parking mandates.

Robbins says thousands of public comments informed the D Street reimagining, leading to concepts for denser housing in the “attainable” price range, which is the focus of a draft Housing Strategic Plan that the Assembly is working on. Robbins considers the D Street project a continuation of what Begich is doing a few blocks away.

Public comments are also being gathered through April 7 on the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Seward to Glenn Connection pedestrian and environmental linkages study. The proposed alternatives would restore Gambell Street as a low-speed neighborhood thoroughfare, while highway-to-highway traffic would route along Hyder Street, Ingra Street, or a new bypass south of Merrill Field airport, possibly involving an elevated viaduct over Chester Creek.

While the highway junction is on the edge of Downtown, the study addresses the movement of freight from the Port of Alaska. Trucks roar up C Street and must turn sharply onto Sixth Avenue to reach the Glenn Highway and points north. Proposed alternatives could bypass narrow streets and flow more smoothly into the highway junction.

Finding the Way

Alternative C1 is one of many proposals being studied for the Seward to Glenn Connection, each trying to satisfy a variety of project goals. The study is accepting public comment through April 7.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

“This is a game changer for our community, depending on how this choice gets made,” says Jonny Hayes, chief design officer for the Anchorage Museum. “If it has people’s input, I’m fairly certain it will be a more successful project than if it were a top-down process.”

As lead organizer of Design Week, Hayes coordinated various architecture, engineering, and visual arts events centered on the Seward to Glenn Connection. The Design Week series opened last week with a presentation at the museum’s SEED Lab, across Sixth Avenue, by Chuck Marohn, a former traffic engineer and the founder of urban advocacy nonprofit Strong Towns.

And Marohn immediately cast aspersions on the highway-to-highway alternatives. “I don’t like any of these plans,” he stated bluntly. In his opinion, prioritizing the flow of highway traffic leaves the project’s other stated goals, such as neighborhood revitalization, as afterthoughts.

Marohn even pointed out the window at Sixth Avenue, with freight traffic rumbling by, as an example of a stroad, a term he coined to describe a facility trying to combine the mobility of a road with the accessibility of a street but failing at both. Even Anchorage’s most walkable grid doesn’t measure up to Strong Towns standards.

To improve walkability, part of the parks and recreation bond proposition on the April ballot includes funding for “wayfinding,” which was among the recommendations in a report compiled by “secret shopper” evaluations of Anchorage.

Also coming soon is a major remodeling of the municipal transit center on Sixth Avenue, which ACDA owns. For years, developers have planned to revive the storefront while adding a deluxe hotel. Robbins admits the project has seen “false starts,” and while he told SMPS that he wasn’t ready to make any official announcements, he’s “very, very confident” that the project could move ahead before 2024 is over.

Robbins also points to a subdivision bringing close to 1,000 homes to Eagle River, as well as the first-ever comprehensive plan for Midtown. “We are not just Downtown; we are the Anchorage Community Development Authority,” Robbins said at the luncheon.

But ACDA focuses on Downtown because that area is, in a sense, all of Anchorage’s front parlor. Robbins says, “We spend about 60 percent of our attention on Downtown—that’s where our tax base is, and we believe that Anchorage needs a vibrant and growing downtown.”

Alaska Business June 2024 cover
In This Issue
Delivering Anchorage's Promise
June 2024
Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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