Hidden and horrific: Downtown Anchorage breezway a smelly problem

Sean Doogan

Hang out, say, at a hot dog stand on the corner of Fourth Avenue and F Street in Anchorage, and if the wind is right, an aroma assaults your nostrils. What's that smell? It's like a dirty public restroom.

Which is pretty close to the truth. Largely unnoticed, a covered breezeway between the shuttered 4th Avenue Theatre and the downtown branch of First National Bank of Alaska has become a collection point for people to relieve themselves.

"It's a popular pit stop for our homeless and chronic inebriate population," said Chris Schutte, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. "But truth be told, on a Friday or Saturday night, any patron passing by might relieve themselves."

The breezeway is a public right-of-way. It cuts south to an alley. It is dark and relatively hidden from view. Empty beer cans, torn clothing, cigarette butts and filth litter the concrete flooring. A secluded passage, meant to be used as a time-saving cut-through for pedestrians, it presents a different draw for some -- especially late at night. One hundred and forty feet long, about 7 feet wide, and 8 feet tall, the rancid ribbon of sidewalk contains the semi-solid and liquid leavings of people who couldn't -- or didn't bother to -- find a real bathroom. And this year, the covered breezeway isn't being cleaned thoroughly.

"It's ridiculous, but until it becomes enough of an issue that people say 'It sure smells like piss,' nothing will get done," said Mike Anderson, known locally for his food stand, M.A.'s Gourmet dogs, which sits across from the offending opening.

The Anchorage Downtown Partnership -- a business and tourism group that maintains most of downtown Anchorage's sidewalks -- currently goes through the breezeway periodically, picking up any solid trash inside. Until this summer, its workers would also power-wash the breezeway with high pressure water and a mixture of cleaning chemicals. But the washing stopped last year after bank managers discovered that a cascade of chemicals and human waste was running into their branch's basement -- which sits under the Fourth Avenue side of the pedestrian tunnel -- after each cleaning.

"The basement would have this horrific combination of Simple Green, urine and general stinkiness," Schutte said.

First National Bank of Alaska Officials said they have re-sealed their building's foundation, but they aren't sure if it can withstand the runoff from more high-pressure washing. They want to close off the breezeway altogether. But that could be a problem. The breezeway also serves as an emergency exit for both the bank and the theater and can't be closed in.

One possible solution being considered: installing metal gates at each end of the breezeway that can only be opened from the inside.

"It's a complex thing," said Cheri Gillian, First National Bank of Alaska's senior vice president of corporate communications and external affairs. "There is momentum building to make this happen, and we would love to do it before winter, but we are one player in this multiplayer issue."

The back half of the breezeway runs over the basement of the Fourth Avenue Theater. The breezeway itself is owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, which contracts with the Downtown Partnership to clean it. Its concrete walkway is cracked and uneven. But the city said the loathsome liquid leakage isn't its fault.

"The damage to the sidewalk is not causing leakage to the building," Lindsey Whitt, spokesperson for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, wrote in a text message response to questions about the problem. "The (bank's) cracked foundation is causing leakage."

To ensure that the breezeway can be power-cleaned, and stave off a total closure, it may be necessary to rip up the walkway and fix the ground under it. Whitt said the city would be happy to work with the bank, the theater and the Downtown Partnership to come up with a solution to the smell.

But it seems for now only one solution is being considered.

"There are talks to possibly close off the alley to make it safer by removing the issue," said Erik Taylor, assistant property manager for Peach Investments LLC, which owns the 4th Avenue Theatre.

Taylor refused to discuss what it means to "remove the issue," because he said he has been told by Peach Investment owners not to discuss anything related to the 4th Avenue Theatre -- which remains boarded up and in less-than-ideal condition after years of disuse.

And others, who use the breezeway for its intended purpose -- to get from Fourth Avenue to the parking lot and alley behind the two buildings -- said that it should be cleaned up, not closed off.

"I think they should seal the sidewalk and clean it regularly," said Rick Goodfellow, who owns Ghost Tours of Anchorage, a six-night-a-week tour of Anchorage's spooky and surreal scenery.

Goodfellow's tour goes through the breezeway each evening. And its current condition, though not supernatural, may be one of the most frightening experiences Goodfellow's thrill-seeking clients encounter. Even so, Goodfellow said the breezeway should be fixed and remain open.

"I think closing it off literally just abandons one more portion of downtown to filth and decay," Goodfellow said.

Reach Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.