City to rebuild Spenard Road with fewer lanes

Rosemary Shinohara

After more than a decade of debate, the city has decided how to rebuild Spenard Road, Anchorage Assemblyman Ernie Hall said Thursday.

The decision, based on goals to make sidewalks safer, add crosswalks and landscaping, and slow traffic, is to convert the road from four lanes to three lanes: one in each direction, with a turn lane in the middle, Hall said.

"This is the best solution," Hall said. "The street is to the point of disrepair. We've got to pay attention to it."

He said he and Mayor Dan Sullivan agreed on the plan. Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

The long-controversial project extends from Hillcrest Drive to Benson Boulevard, through the heart of a thriving commercial area that has been building up over the last few years. Side streets off Spenard are filled with apartment buildings and condos, which also makes it a big walking area.

As one of two Assembly members representing Spenard, Hall has been meeting with residents and business owners in the area since 2010, looking for a consensus on how to fix the road.

Some business owners were adamantly against changing the road from four lanes to three -- especially after they saw what happened when Arctic Boulevard underwent that conversion.

Arctic includes unexpected shifts in lanes so drivers can't go straight across some intersections. Traffic backs up behind city buses and there's no way to go around them, Chilkoot Charlie's owner Mike Gordon said at one point.

Add to many people's disappointment at the outcome of the Arctic reconstruction the fact that the project went on much longer than expected and hurt access to Arctic businesses.

Still, other business owners and residents have backed the three-lane alternative for Spenard Road to make more room for sidewalks and street-side amenities.

After about a year of meetings, Hall declared in spring 2011 that major disagreements still remained. He said he was forming an 11-member committee of community council and business representatives to make another attempt at finding a solution.

The committee didn't focus on how many lanes there should be but agreed that the street should have crosswalks, that sidewalks should comply with the federal disabilities act -- they'll be widened -- and that cars shouldn't be backing out of properties onto Spenard Road, Hall said. Those priorities led to the need to make it three lanes, he said.

The road now has four-foot sidewalks and no crosswalks between Fireweed Lane and Northern Lights Boulevard.

When it's redone, the section from Hillcrest Drive to 27th Avenue will be three lanes, but in the heavily trafficked section from 27th to Northern Lights, the road will remain four lanes, Hall said.

If they had tried to make the pedestrian safety improvements while keeping a four-lane road, it would have meant acquiring a lot of properties to make enough room, he said.

Some businesses will lose parking in front of their buildings even with the three-lane alternative but the city is looking at acquiring other property for businesses to replace the lost parking, Hall said.

And both he and the mayor are committed to scheduling construction so that it has minimal impact on businesses, Hall said.

The agreement just covers concepts and now more detailed design can begin, he said.

Fellow Spenard Assembly member Harriet Drummond, who worked with Hall on the project, said she's happy with the outcome. Drummond is resigning her Assembly job in January to represent her area in the state House of Representatives, where she said she'll work to get state funding for the road.

The Assembly and mayor included $16 million in state funding for Spenard Road on their legislative wish list, she said.

Hall said some city bond money could also be available.

Few people have seen the plans yet.

Lottie Michael, who owns the building that houses the Sugarspoon bakery on Spenard Road, was in on a meeting with Hall and the mayor recently. She had been against the idea of a three-lane reconstruction but she said Thursday she didn't want to comment on the decision.

Gordon Glaser, vice president of the North Star Community Council, also met with Hall and Sullivan, and said he's for the concepts they've decided on.

"This is a developing part of town," Glaser said. "We want to make it user-friendly for residents and customers."

He said if the road could have been made safer with four lanes, he would have considered that.

Jim Bowers, president of the Spenard Community Council, said he'd heard "the project was approved, the mayor's pursuing funding and we're going to get a road. It's all good news."