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Road project planned for UMed -- but it's not the one you think

Nathaniel Herz
University Lake Drive currently ends at a gate, but Alaska Pacific University plans to extend the road along University Lake and around the Moseley Sports Center to connect to University Drive. People and pets visiting the municipal University Lake Dog Park may find less room to roam as APU defines its property line for the public.
Erik Hill
A fence separates the Alaska Pacific University soccer field from the trail encircling University Lake, and makes a point of excluding dogs in particular. Alaska Pacific University plans to build a road along University Lake and around the Moseley Sports Center to connect to University Drive. People and pets visiting the municipal University Lake Dog Park are finding less room to roam as APU defines its property line for the public.
Erik Hill

There's a new road project planned for construction next summer in East Anchorage's U-Med District -- but it's not the one you think.

The Northern Access Project linking Elmore Road and Bragaw Street has generated opposition from local residents, who fear it will swallow up green space and bring more traffic to an area that's already seeing extensive development.

By contrast, plans for another new road nearby, on the campus of Alaska Pacific University, have drawn barely a peep.

The $6 million project, funded by a federal earmark in the 2005 highway bill, will cut through fields and trees on APU property, near University Lake. The first phase of construction will likely end in a cul-de-sac, with plans ultimately calling for it to connect to the existing road running through APU's campus, forming a loop

The project aims to open up property for development by APU, which gets about 20 percent of its annual budget from leasing its land and buildings, according to president Don Bantz. And the road also offers an opportunity to insulate the school from a public off-leash dog park at University Lake, after spillover from the park has led to tensions between APU and the city.

Bantz said he was initially ambivalent about the road and didn't want to see the area developed. But the school needs the money that the newly accessible land could generate, he said.

Plus, he added, the project is in accordance with the university's master plan, which calls for developing "endowment lands" on the fringes of APU's campus, and leaving green space at its center.

"We're going to have to continue to develop these endowment properties to generate income, but you want to do it in a way that keeps it park-like, and preserves the feel of campus," he said in an interview. "This is our land -- everybody sees this as a public park."

APU NEEDS THE INCOME

APU is a private college, and without much government support, it relies in part on revenues from leases of its land and buildings on campus.

Any development there must be compatible with elements of APU's curriculum, Bantz said.

The school already owns and rents out the buildings that house the Alaska Spine Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, and it also leases land to a Native corporation that runs a hotel next to University Lake.

The new road, which is being called University Lake Drive, is designed to give APU access to more of its property at the southeast corner of its campus, near Wesleyan Drive and the Chester Creek Trail.

The school wants to put another building there, which Bantz said was originally planned as a state geology center before officials found another spot in town for it.

Money for the road was originally part of the 2005 federal highway bill, which passed -- including $200 million for the Knik Arm Bridge -- when Rep. Don Young was the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The city is responsible for the road's design and the state will oversee construction. The project's total budget is $6.3 million, with $5.7 million from the earmarks and about $600,000 coming from APU, according to Steve Gillette, the city's project manager.

The project was delayed for years while the city, state, and APU sorted out who would reimburse the federal government if money was spent on the project and it was never built, according to Stewart Osgood, the president of the engineering firm hired by the city to oversee design work.

"There was this three-way shootout going on," he said.

Construction is now tentatively planned for next summer, pending environmental and other approvals from the Federal Highway Administration, Osgood said.

His firm, Dowl HKM, has already presented the project concept to local community councils, and plans to go back to get feedback on designs.

There's likely not enough earmark money to link the road with APU's existing University Drive, Osgood said, though city public safety officials ultimately want the roads to connect to provide for better access.

The new road will be built as far as its budget will take it, with completion most likely coming with the construction of a new building.

BLOCKING THE DOG PARK

The new road also serves a second purpose for APU, Bantz said: better separating its private property from the adjacent public dog park at University Lake. Plans currently call for a 6-foot fence along the road at the edge of APU's land to better mark the boundary.

Since the park opened, Bantz said the city has failed to prevent dog walkers from straying onto APU lands, where "they bite our people." He also says that park users have taken up scarce parking in the area.

After a series of complaints, and a sharply worded letter from Bantz to Mayor Dan Sullivan in 2010, the city installed a $50,000 fence next to an APU soccer field near the park and it has also added signs directing dog walkers.

In an interview, city parks superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres said University Lake had been converted into a dog park before the city installed all the amenities it needed -- which her department has been adding as money becomes available for them. Just Friday, the city attended a meeting of local residents to discuss the park's signage.

"I completely understand APU's frustration as a neighbor," Spoth-Torres said. "For many years, it was unclear to the public where park boundaries were, where they could park, where they couldn't park, which trails they could walk on with their dogs off-leash."

Spoth-Torres said that the fence would "absolutely" help fix the problems.

Kayla Epstein, who works with an advocacy group that supports city dog parks, said that she was disappointed to see more development in the University Lake area.

"The park used to be like a wilderness in the middle of the city," she said.

But, she added, she doesn't contest APU's control of its property.

"I can't dispute that. That's their land," Epstein said.

Susan Klein, a longtime member and former president of the University Area Community Council, said that she was "not exactly happy" about the plans for the new road, or about the prospect of new development on APU property.

But, she added, she could accept it, especially since the school's other projects, like the hotel near the lake, have reflected public feedback, and have been designed to blend in with surroundings.

"It could have been purple," she said, referring to the hotel. "APU is pretty responsible about how they do their development."

The road will also result in the diversion of APU ski trails, according to Osgood, the president of the engineering firm. He said that the firm is trying to fit an overpass for the trails into its budget.

Plans currently call for a two-lane street with a sidewalk, and ultimately bus stops along the way, Osgood said.

His firm is also working on the Northern Access Project, which could have as many as four lanes, and he said he understands why that one has been more controversial. Osgood sees University Lake Drive, however, as more of a positive -- especially given the opportunity for the city and APU to "hit the reset button" on the dog park.

"I don't see a lot here, other than good," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com