City looks to future of Ship Creek

mtheriault@adn.comApril 17, 2013 

For the past 30 years, people have envisioned big things for Ship Creek, Anchorage's quirky industrial waterfront: an aquarium, a dam, a convention center.

In each case, the plans never left the drawing board.

The area has remained, for the most part, an industrial area with a salmon stream running through its center, a place for lunchtime anglers and tractor-trailer trucks bound for the port.

But things are slowly changing in the spot where Anchorage was born as a muddy tent city.

A historic-but-cobwebbed Alaska Railroad freight shed has been renovated into the sunny, sleek, LEED-certified offices of the Alaska Humanities Forum and the U.S. Forest Service.

The city is investing $4 million of legislative grant money into revitalizing the Ship Creek area, which the mayor describes as an under-developed gem in an increasingly crowded downtown core.

Mayor Dan Sullivan announced Monday that international design and architecture firm KlingStubbins has been hired to draw up a new master plan for the area, with an eye to attracting outside investment and tenants. The master plan recommends policies governing land use development at a site. That will cost $600,000 of the legislative grant money, channeled through the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.

The rest of the $4 million will go to trail improvements including creek bank stabilization, new fishing platforms and new signs for the area. The work will start this summer.

This week, a series of public events in Anchorage -- organized by KlingStubbins and its local partners -- have asked residents to offer up their best ideas for the future of the land. More than 100 people attended Tuesday's event, said the Alaska Railroad's vice president of real estate, Jim Kubitz.

Condominiums? An ice skating pond? An "architectural signature" piece like Seattle's iconic Space Needle? An outdoor amphitheater? An extension of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail? Studios for artists?

It's all on the table, says Michael Stevenson of KlingStubbins.

Stevenson has been in town talking with neighbors and user groups about what they want for the area. He said he's been hearing the same things: Stores, restaurants and trails in close proximity to housing. Pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

"Probably what we heard most is mixed-use," he said.

Since the early 1980s city officials and business boosters have proposed convention centers, theme malls and artificial wetlands. Then-mayor Rick Mystrom proposed a dam in the late 1990s. A task force came up with the idea of an aquarium and an IMAX theater in 2000.

What makes this time different?

KlingStubbins has a record of large-scale developments, like a new urban neighborhood built on undeveloped land on Boston's waterfront, says Sullivan.

And the Alaska Railroad, which owns most of the land, now offers leases up to 95 years. Those are more attractive for potential investors than the 55-year leases they once were restricted to, Kubitz said.

Whatever happens, it won't be quick.

"Is it an overnight process?" Sullivan said. "No. Will there be some incredible development there in the next two or three years? No."

At the heart of any redevelopment would be a handful of lots owned by the Alaska Railroad, the biggest landowner in the area.

The Alaska Railroad lots, which range in size from 11.8 acres to less than an acre, are the largest pieces of available property in downtown Anchorage, said Kubitz.

Kubitz, who used to fish at Ship Creek as a boy, said the railroad has rejected potential tenants he felt wouldn't preserve or add to the character of Ship Creek. He declined to say who.

"Slowly but surely we're adding things that make sense," he said.

Today he envisions loft apartments for young professionals in a vacant lot that used to be a "sled-dog rodeo" tourist attraction.

On a finger of land at the edge of the inlet currently occupied by old rail ties, he can see restaurants or some other waterfront attraction.

Kubitz would also like to see city, state, railroad and private donors partner on an outdoor amphitheater on the grassy slope of land below the site of the Saturday Market. But there are still problems.

The utilities are old -- there are wooden sewers in some places. The Alaska Railroad is working on upgrading them.

And the sites have history, which can be troublesome. When the freight shed renovation was under way construction crews found hundreds of beer bottles, a Model A Ford and the remains of a moose buried under the building.

For some developers, Ship Creek is too complicated, he says.

"We need incentives to make it happen," Kubitz said. "We also need people with a little bit of a spirit of adventure."

 


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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