Alaska Life

Domes, tramways, and foothill highways: The history of Anchorage development proposals that never materialized

A 1969 design drawing for Seward Success 21st Century city tramway

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Alaska history is littered with plans, proposals, and exploratory studies — some laughably disconnected from reality. The vast majority of these schemes never come close to implementation. Otherwise, we would have a physics-defying freshwater pipeline to California, submarine oil tankers, and bridges across the Bering Sea to Russia. In my last column, I discussed how the Anchorage landscape was altered over the past century. From drained wetlands to gravel pit lakes, the local terrain barely resembles the town that was founded in 1915. In this article, I cover many of the plans that did not happen, from domes to safe bike trails to highways in the foothills.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Anchorage geography severely hampered floatplane pilots. None of the area lakes were large enough for heavily-laden takeoffs, and planes could not be left unattended on the Knik Arm. In late 1939, construction began on the runway canal linking Lake Hood and Lake Spenard. However, not all residents and aviators supported this development. Those lakes were then several miles from city limits, and many locals had advocated for more convenient alternatives.

City leaders proposed two alternative locations. The more expensive though preferable plan called for the construction of a 2,000-foot-long and 20-foot-high dam on Chester Creek near Merrill Field. An artificial floatplane base there would have geographically unified local flight operations closer to town but cost perhaps twice as much as the eventual canal. Engineers also doubted whether the water level could be maintained at this upstream lake.

The other proposed floatplane base location essentially called for the creation of the Westchester Lagoon 40 years early. As with the current lagoon, the creek would have been dammed near its mouth, creating a lake that stretched back to Spenard Road. This possibility raises an interesting though unanswerable question, whether the Bootlegger Cove to Turnagain neighborhoods would have been as appealing to the rich and powerful who populated the new homes built there in the 1950s to 1960s.

The undeveloped floatplane bases are far from only the only abandoned plans in Anchorage history. The shelves of the University of Alaska Anchorage and Loussac libraries positively groan under the weight of hundreds of abandoned planning documents from the past 70 years. The proposals for just Fire Island include causeways linking it to the Anchorage mainland, real estate developments, a chemical plant, a prison, a Navy port, a commercial port and a resort.

An Anchorage Alaska Metropolitan Area general plan from 1980

Reading these planning documents today is like discovering an alternate history of Anchorage. The 1980 Anchorage, Alaska Metropolitan Area General Plan was published in 1961 and envisioned the city as it might best appear 20 years later. The transportation design in the plan is strikingly different from what we have today. The connection between the Seward and Glenn highways largely diverts around Fairview, unlike the late 1960s expansion of Gambell and Ingra Streets that horribly divided the neighborhood. Most notably, Coastal and Foothills Parkways circle much of the city. While aspects of the 1980 General Plan remained scheduled into the 1970s, city leaders never intended to implement it. Vocal criticism from coastal and foothill residents was a major factor, people with no interest in a major thoroughfare running through their communities.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1964, Edwin Crittenden’s architectural firm developed a design for a revitalized Anchorage downtown. He and his team believed downtown land use was inefficient, with undersized blocks divided by too many roads. Therefore, his plan proposed closing alternating north-south streets, Fourth Avenue, and Sixth Avenue from A to I Streets. These roads would be restricted to pedestrians and, in some instances, shuttle buses. Fourth Avenue became an open-air mall with an ice rink.

A 1964 drawing for a plan for downtown Anchorage from Fourth Avenue looking east between E and F Streets with ice rink
A 1964 drawing for 1964 for a plan for downtown Anchorage from Fourth Avenue looking west

The planning documents from the 1970s reflect the boom in bicycle sales and the influence of the earliest Anchorage biking advocates like Lanie Fleischer and John Reese. The 1970 Comprehensive Development Plan for the Central Business District — downtown, in other words — proposed narrowed streets with increased landscaping and a protected bike route down F Street and Fourth Avenue. The landscaping happened, but the protected bike route obviously did not.

The 1973 Bikeway & Related Trail System Plan was more ambitious. It detailed a three-phased development of an interconnected trail and bike pathway system that connected most of the Anchorage bowl. In addition, rest areas would dot the trails with information kiosks, shelters, firepits, seating areas, bike racks, restrooms, and nature study areas. Implementation was meant to take only five to six years, but only minor aspects of this plan were ever built.

A 1973 plan for a bikeway and related trail system in Anchorage
Phase 3 of a 1973 plan for a bikeway and related trail system in Anchorage

As with city planners, architects in and out of Alaska have spent innumerable hours crafting building designs that were ultimately rejected, labors that are footnotes at best and forgotten at worst. The more unique rejected alternatives offer tantalizing glimpses of an Anchorage that never came. In 1981, the renowned architect Gunnar Birkerts submitted a design for the Midtown Loussac Library. His vision for the library emphasized light, with far more windows and curved projections extending from the building core. A mirrored lens in the summit of the building tracked the sun and refocused sunlight into the interior.

Instead, Anchorage got an overwhelmingly brown building that has been more maligned than not since it opened. To be fair, numerous elements from the winning design were altered for budgetary reasons, including a lost parking garage and the addition of since-removed exterior steps that no one recalls fondly. Still, Birkerts’ other works, including the standout National Library of Latvia, heavily hint at what could have been.

National Library of Latvia in Riga

During the 1960s and 1970s, architects worldwide succumbed to the fad of domes. Supposed experts and futurists repeatedly predicted that the future of everyday life and even entire cities was beneath domes. Advocates like Buckminster Fuller argued that domed buildings were stronger, easy to build, consumed less electricity, and were a dramatic option against the growing trend of cookie-cutter suburban developments.

While appealing in theory, the reality of domes is more complicated in application. Our physical culture, manufacturing and building codes reflect our predilection for rectangular structures. Couches with right-angled corners are awkward to position within a circular room. More seriously, it was difficult to obtain the triangular or hexagonal panes of glass required for many geodesic dome designs.

Yet, Alaskans were just as easily swayed by the allure of domes. Alaska newspapers and magazines offered ads for build-it-yourself dome kits. In 1965, local architect Rod McEntire proposed a combination community and convention center for Anchorage made of three interconnected geodesic domes that could have housed conventions of up to 5,000 individuals.

A newspaper advertisement for an Anchorage business selling geodesic domes

Several proposals for large, non-inflatable, multi-purpose sports domes were defeated over the decades. Residents of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough rejected a $6.5 million bond proposal for a domed stadium in 1972. After much argument and lobbying, what became the Sullivan Arena was chosen over a domed alternative, the so-called Dream Dome, in the early 1980s. And the failure of the Anchorage Olympic bids in the late 1980s killed a renewed impetus for a domed facility.

The most notorious dome concept for the Anchorage area was not actually a dome, despite the widespread misunderstanding. First announced in 1969, Seward’s Success was to be an all-indoor city situated across the Knik Arm from Anchorage at Point MacKenzie. Designed by Adrian Wilson Associates of Los Angeles, the city was more like a large indoor mall and lacked any domes or glass bubbles. The promotional material promised, “All elements of the new community will be interconnected with controlled temperature malls. Coats and boots will never be required unless one traveled to Anchorage or went outside for recreation.”

This type of confusion in terms is common. In 1978, U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel called for a new planned community near Denali. To this day, many Alaskans think he was suggesting a domed city, something that looked as if it was ripped from the pages of a comic book. His poor word choices fostered confusion, something he later acknowledged. Instead, he proposed that a four-mile-long Teflon-covered webbing would cover his Denali City. His critics, of which there were many, derided the concept as a “Teflon tent.”

A 1969 location map Seward Success 21st century city
A 1969 site plan for Seward Success 21st century city

Seward’s Success was a passion project for Alfred “Bill” Tandy, president of Tandy Industries of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In October 1969, Tandy Industries was the winning — and only — bidder for a lease on 3,209 acres across from Anchorage. The next month, Bill Tandy wrote a personal check to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for the annual fee down payment. He saw Seward’s Success as the future logistical and scientific headquarters for the burgeoning oil industry in Alaska. Per the same promotional pamphlet, the city would “function 365 days a year, regardless of weather, and there will never be a geologist, an accountant, or a secretary delayed to work by weather or stymied by the lack of materials or supplies. All the people and all the supplies and equipment will be headquartered in one climate controlled complex.”

City plans called for 600,000 square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet for commercial use, and 5,000 living units. The design included churches, hotels, schools, recreation facilities, sports fields and a shopping mall. Moving sidewalks, trams and monorails would transport residents and visitors around the city. As envisioned, residents would have little need to live or even visit anywhere else. For those employees who wanted to live in Anchorage, their commute would consist of driving to a parking lot on the Anchorage side of the Knik Arm and boarding an aerial tram that would carry them across the water and directly into Seward’s Success.

However, environmental concerns and the settlement of Alaska Native land claims delayed the construction of the Alaska pipeline for several years. An executive overseeing Seward’s Success said in 1971, “Everything in this project was timed with the construction of the pipeline. The economic basis for the new city does not exist without the pipeline.” With the oil industry in Alaska delayed, there was no point in building Seward’s Success.

After such high hopes in late 1969, Tandy gave up and transferred the project to Great Northern Corp. of Delaware in July 1970. The rest of 1970, all of 1971, and most of 1972 passed without progress. In September 1972, Great Northern requested a moratorium on lease payments and an extension on development plans. When the borough denied their request, the company simply did not make their next scheduled lease payment that December and surrendered the land rights. Borough manager Wes Howe told the Anchorage Daily Times, “I think their original scheme was a little too grandiose for the economic development that will occur here, and I think they realize this now.”

Point MacKenzie has been the setting of several other boondoggles and failed dreams over the decades, including the railroad spur to nowhere, the Point MacKenzie Dairy Project, and several undeveloped bridge concepts. The only people who have prospered have been the planners and the fortunate few that sold land there to the next wave of investors. In 1999, an Anchorage realtor told the Daily News, ‘’There’s been a lot of land bought and sold and bought again.”

Dreams are great and the only way to advance the city to where it could be. At the same time, skepticism is both healthy and warranted until such time as shovels hit dirt.

ADVERTISEMENT
• • •

Key sources:

“Chamber Refuses to Pass on Move Transfer Bureau.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 5, 1932, 5.

City of Anchorage Planning Commission. 1980 Anchorage, Alaska Metropolitan Area General Plan. Anchorage: City of Anchorage, 1961.

Edward Crittenden Architects and Associates. Rebuilding Anchorage: A Pre-Earthquake Central Business District Design Study. Anchorage: Edward Crittenden Architects and Associates, 1964.

“Firm Loses Rights on Land for Seward’s Success.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 22, 1972, 2.

“Gravel Defines Plan for Covered City.” Anchorage Daily News, March 29, 1978, 2.

Greater Anchorage Area Borough Planning Commission. Bikeway & Related Trail System Plan. Anchorage: Greater Anchorage Area Borough, 1973.

Greater Anchorage Area Borough Planning Commission. A Comprehensive Development Plan for the Central Business District of Anchorage, Alaska 1970-1980. Anchorage: Greater Anchorage Area Borough, 1970.

ADVERTISEMENT

Komarnitsky, S.J. “Point MacKenzie Dreams Have Soared, Sunk for Years.” Anchorage Daily News, November 18, 1999, A12.

“Multi-purpose Community Center for 1967?” Anchorage Daily Times, March 20, 1965, 6.

“Pipeline Delays Seward’s Success.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 11, 1971, 14.

Seward’s Success: The Twenty-First Century City. Tandy Industries, Inc., Tulsa, OK, 1969.

Taylor, Mike. “Developing the Dream Dome.” Anchorage Times, May 25, 1992, F1, F6.

Tuttell, Wit. “Dome Idea Has Been Around for Decades.” Anchorage Times, May 24, 1992, C10.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

Sponsored