Julia O'Malley: In a rough neighborhood, a bulldozer with a smile

Julia O'Malley
Fairview resident Paul Fuhs would like to see the sidewalks along Gambell Street widen to accommodate pedestrians, and reduce the number of driving lanes to three, making room for snow removal. Wednesday, July 10, 2013.
Bill Roth
Fairview resident Paul Fuhs would like to see the sidewalks along Gambell Street widen to accommodate pedestrians, and reduce the number of driving lanes to three, making room for snow removal. Wednesday, July 10, 2013.
Bill Roth

There's something just right about rolling through Fairview with Paul Fuhs in his blue convertible 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. It's a flashy car held in high regard by rappers and grandparents alike. Fuhs, a rising neighborhood leader, has a similarly democratic sort of charm.

People in Fairview call him a bridge-builder. A street diplomat. A greaser of political wheels.

"My ex-wife, " he told me, "calls me the smiling bulldozer."

Technically speaking, Fuhs, a sturdy, salt-and-pepper haired 64-year-old, is a lobbyist. He has worked for years in representing maritime interests in Juneau. (He began his maritime career as a diver and underwater explosives expert). He was the mayor of Dutch Harbor from 1985-1991. In the case of Fairview, his client isn't a city or corporation. It's the neighborhood where he grew up. Fairview may be the only neighborhood in Anchorage employing a lobbyist, but given the depth of the blight there, it's probably a good idea.

Fuhs lives with his wife and daughter on 11th Avenue, in a nice house located on what has historically been the rougher side of Cordova Street. (In the interest of full disclosure: my dad also grew up also on the shabby side of Cordova a block away.) Fuhs' mother lives next door to him in the house where he was raised. She is 92.

As public attention and redevelopment money has been focused on Mountain View over the past decade, Fairview has remained out of the spotlight. It may now be one of the city's most troubled pockets, burdened with more than its share of street alcoholics and crime, plagued with low-rent hotels and poorly-managed rentals, hollowed out as the recession shuttered many of the automotive businesses at its core.

Not to say that change isn't happening in Fairview. Its proximity to downtown has encouraged slow but steady gentrification along the blocks between Cordova and Merrill Field, particularly Fuhs' part of the neighborhood between Cordova and Gambell. A core group of advocates made up of businesses and residents has formed. Fuhs is the most politically connected among them and has some of the deepest local roots. He took a serious interest in Fairview about two years ago he said, when residents and businesses were fighting Karluk Manor, a new kind of housing project for chronic alcoholics that allows them to live there without quitting drinking. The neighbors were not successful in stopping the Manor, but they did form the Fairview Business Association, a non-profit made up of local businesses -- among them the Lucky Wishbone, Brown's Electric, Alaska Aces, Morrison Auto Group and Copper River Seafoods -- paying annual dues of between $500 and $2,500.

Fuhs helped write the group's bylaws, and then the FBA turned around and hired him as a consultant. After that, he helped secure a $200,000 legislative appropriation in 2012 to study the redevelopment of Gambell Street. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities was supposed to begin a repaving project in 2015, but Fuhs is now looking to fund further road improvements at the same time.

The Fairview Community Council has been looking for progress for a long time, Council President SJ Klein told me. But penetrating government bureaucracy has been the biggest impediment.

"(Fuhs) is the perfect antidote to bureaucracy," he said. "He puts his head down and keeps on pushing until he breaks through."

I met Fuhs at his house this week with plans to take a drive through the neighborhood. Before we left, he spread out a couple of maps on his kitchen table. The vision for the new Gambell Street is three-lane, more pedestrian-oriented street. Fuhs would like to see wider sidewalks, buried utilities and better streetlighting. Pending studies by traffic engineers, Mayor Dan Sullivan has signed on in support of these plans. (In case you were wondering about the so-called highway-to-highway connector project, which could bring major change to the Gambell/Ingra area and link the Glenn and Seward highway corridors, it's been pushed off 20 years.)

The road changes are just the beginning of what Fuhs and the members of the business association want to see in Fairview. He hopes to convince developers to construct buildings along the Gambell corridor with shops on the ground floor and condos above that would be marketed to retiring boomers. He wants the city to offer tax abatement for redevelopment projects in the neighborhood, allowing developers to write-off some of their required city infrastructure upgrade costs on their property taxes. He envisions something like Portland's Pearl District, a former warehouse area remade into luxury condos, shops and restaurants.

On Friday, Sullivan told me he's in favor a tax abatement program, if the city is able to offer it. That's something the city is looking into, because Sullivan would like to try something similar at Ship Creek, he said. The mayor lived in Fairview as a young man, he said. He and Fuhs have been acquainted since junior high. The neighborhood is in need of some "tender, loving care," he said.

Fuhs and I drove through perhaps Fairview's seediest intersection, at 13th and Gambell, and swung down Hyder, where a group of intoxicated characters were loitering in the street. They smiled and waved at us in the car. He smiled and waved back.

Among the smaller projects Fuhs is working on is getting a Fairview coffee shop (the vendors he'd talked to say the neighborhood is still too rough). He also wants to clean up the bluff above the jail near Lucky Wishbone, which is rife with illegal camping and unsavory activities. Many of the neighborhood problems come back to homeless inebriates, he said. The neighbors attribute that to the concentration of social services in the area. With that said, Fuhs told me he has become a believer in the Karluk Manor.

"It's taking people off the street," he said. "It actually works."

He'd like to see another facility like it with double the capacity, just in another part of town.

Some of his other ideas for cleaning up the neighborhood are unorthodox. He wants a liquor store next to Brother Francis Shelter and Beans Cafe that sells directly to street alcoholics. It would relieve some of the traffic to the liquor stores on Gambell, he said. The proceeds could go to treatment. And he'd like public bathrooms to keep street people from going on private property.

He's confident that the neighborhood is at the beginning of a transformation.

"I believe people can do things if they are organized," he said.

Fuhs pulled in to one of his favorite examples of urban renewal on Gambell: the complex of the corner of Ninth Avenue, a once-vacant car dealership that is now Anchorage Athletic Club, Downtown Grill and Driven Auto Body. It's owned by Tony Stanley, a businessman Fuhs has known since his Dutch Harbor days. Stanley's son, Logan Stanley, runs the grill. We took a seat on its patio, one of the most elaborately landscaped patios I've ever seen. Fuhs ordered us both iced teas. When Logan came out, Fuhs informed him that the community council was going to give him an award for the investment in the restaurant. The restaurant was just the kind of re-development that the neighborhood would someday be known for, he said.




Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.



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