What can save the 4th Avenue Theatre?

Julia O'Malley
The 4th Avenue Theatre continues to sit unused on Friday, November 8, 2013, downtown.
Erik Hill
The 4th Avenue Theatre awning deteriorates as the building sits unused on Friday, November 8, 2013, downtown.
Erik Hill

Anchorage has a soft spot for the 4th Avenue Theatre, one of the city's most visible historic buildings, with its art deco style and stunning interior. Those of us old enough to have been inside remember the smooth walnut panelling and Alaskana murals, including the gold leaf of Mount McKinley, and the lovely staircases. How many first kisses have taken place under the twinkling big dipper cast in lights on the ceiling? Could "Ghostbusters" or "Gone with the Wind" or "The Exorcist" play in a better venue? No. Not here.

The theater's sign no longer glows. Its lights have long been dark. Recently when I walked under the awning, I noticed peeling paint and crumbling cement. My heart broke a little.

I tap-danced in the aisles there after seeing "Annie" when I was 4. I wept with fan-love in the front row during an acoustic Jewel performance when I was 16. In college, I stood on the elegant stage and gave a eulogy for my grandmother. How is it that the iconic theater -- site of so many first dates, proms and events connected to so many of our histories -- is now boarded up, quietly decaying?

More important: Can it still be saved?

The short answer is that it's largely out of our hands, what happens to that beloved place. But before I go on, let me tell you how we got here.

The theater was built in the 1940s, big enough to seat almost 1,000 people. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and survived the 1964 earthquake, but it didn't do so well during Anchorage's economic slump in the mid-1980s. It was purchased by Anchorage businessman Robert Gottstein in 1991 at a foreclosure auction. He spent millions restoring it, according to news accounts at the time, but was never able to make it thrive. Later efforts to find a buyer willing to preserve it also failed.

Community groups tried to put together money to buy the theater. The Anchorage Assembly put a $2 million bond proposition up for a vote, hoping to buy it. Voters rejected that in 2006.

The building went into foreclosure again. It was sold in 2009 to a firm owned by a San Francisco couple, Joe and Maria Fang, for $1.65 million. There were rumors it might be torn down to make a parking garage or become home to a gym. And since then, it has been empty, the weather slowly eating away at it. The whole property is now valued for city tax purposes at $1.19 million. The theater building is valued at $500,000.

In 2011, there were more rumors that the Fangs with their sons, Derrick and Terrence Chang, were circulating redevelopment plans. KTVA did a story with an image from a Seattle-based architecture firm that showed a redeveloped theater with several stories of offices built on top. Those plans, apparently, didn't come to fruition.

I called Derrick Chang at the Anchorage office of Peach Investments this week and asked him about the theater. He was mum about his company's plans but said the city is aware of some of their "visions."

"We're just kind of brainstorming within the office," he said. "Check back with us next year."

His firm, he said, needed some property tax relief from the city to start redevelopment of the theater.

"They need to be a little more committed," he said.

This happens to be nearly exactly what Chang told me in 2011 when I called to ask him about another building the family owns: the old Northern Lights Hotel in Midtown. That building, once a hotel and brewpub, can't become a viable hotel again because it would be prohibitively expensive to bring it up to fire codes (and because it has so decayed since it was shuttered in 2002 that city officials in 2011 refused to enter it without hazmat suits.) The building is now valued at only $25,000. (The land has a value of $2.1 million.) At the time I talked to Chang, there had been trouble with squatters inside it and the city was threatening to tear it down and send his company the bill. He said the cost to demolish it was $1 million and his family wanted tax incentives before it would tear it down. Those incentives never came. And the building has only become a larger eyesore.

The Chang/Fangs are also the developers behind the sleek newer office tower at Northern Lights and C Street, known as 188 W. Northern Lights. Companies the family owns hold several other large parcels and buildings in the city, including the Key Bank building downtown. They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes.

I called City Hall to see if I could find someone who knew about the Chang/Fang vision for the theater. It turned out that family members had met with the mayor and city staff a few times about their properties, according to Mayor Dan Sullivan's spokeswoman, Lindsey Whitt. At least once, a local engineering company, Dowl HKM, was involved, she said.

"They are supposed to come back with a plan to propose to the administration," Whitt said. "At this time I cannot confirm we have heard back from them."

She suggested I call Dowl. I left a message. My call was not returned.

There is a process in the city for getting tax relief for a property that is in poor condition. It requires an application and Assembly approval. There has been no application like that made for the theater, according to the city assessor's office.

I wanted to talk to Sullivan about what had been said in the meeting with the Fangs, but he wasn't available. Whitt sent me an email after talking to him about the theater. He'd like to see the place saved from decay, she said.

"Absolutely do we want to see progress," she said.

Thinking about the theater brought up some old stories for the mayor. He told Whitt there was a time when you could see a movie for free with a Wonder Bread wrapper, she said. Short of wrappers, some of the Sullivan brothers snuck in by walking in backward as the crowd was coming out, he said.

As for what he'd heard from the developer about what might happen there:

"The Fang family has discussed their plans for the property with my administration and remains committed to preserving the historical art deco exterior and maintain the interior wall panel facades inside the theater."

But, he added, "the building is in the hands of a private developer."

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.


What are your favorite 4th Avenue Theatre memories? Facebook readers respond

"The first place my now-wife and I went to see movies. Loved to look at the art deco interior before the lights went down."

"When some Disney \characters came to Anchorage and they had a special showing of "Cinderella." She came out on the stage before the show and we also met the characters at Penny's. It was a big deal for me!"

"'Ghostbusters!' Saw that for the first time there."

"My mom trying to parallel park in front as we bought tickets for movie. The ticket guy made a wisecrack about what a bad driver she was and was stunned when I claimed her! We've laughed for years about that kid's face when I said she was my mom!"

"My first kiss. In the balcony, of course. Have NO idea what the movie was."

"I saw Gone With The Wind on revival there with my mother when I was a little girl. I still remember being transfixed by the interior of the theater."

"The double seats. Wide enough for a mother and child."

"The uncut Exorcist when at least a couple of dozen people would run out of the theater each showing."

"Sliding pennies down their expansive banisters on the main staircase, gazing at the Big Dipper as the lights dimmed, and of course the double lovers seats on the ends of the aisles."

Worked there for years with a great crew. Met John Denver there as he presented "Alaska's Child," got held up, had a heck of a fistfight in the lobby trying to protect a friend who was being misunderstood by idiots, used to watch movies through the ceiling from the catwalk above the stars, making...uh...friends in the balcony, learning every word to a Star is Born..."

"Playing in a band on that stage, and singing in that wonderful room. The acoustics are phenomenal! Many happy wedding receptions, music concerts and other events were held in that space. The annual Symphony of Seafood. It's such a shame that the biggest, most grand building on Fourth Avenue is boarded up. Says a lot about our so-called priorities."

"I'm afraid that will have to remain private."

"The last movie. A Woody Allen, I think. Tears as we departed."

-- Compiled by Julia O'Malley



Julia O'Malley
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