A section of Anchorage's Spenard neighborhood scarred for years by shuttered, derelict buildings is on the edge of a transformation.
This week, heavy equipment was rolling over what used to be an asphalt parking lot for the old PJs strip club at the corner of 36th Avenue and Spenard Road. Cook Inlet Housing Authority, an Anchorage-based nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, broke ground Wednesday on a $10 million, three-story building that will mix residences and retail.
Commercial space will open up on the ground floor, while 33 one-bedroom apartments will be spread out through the three floors, priced at both subsidized and market rates.
The long-awaited construction is beginning about five years after the housing agency bought the property. It signals a major step toward broader plans for this section of Spenard. For years, Cook Inlet Housing has been buying up properties near the corner of 36th and Spenard with the aim of creating a new gateway to a neighborhood.
One of those properties, the former Alpina Auto Repair store lot, is undergoing environmental cleanup. Farther east, near Fish Creek, Cook Inlet Housing is planning to fill vacant lots along 36th Avenue with duplexes.
On the west side of the street sit the boldly painted offices of Cook Inlet Housing. Next door, a former church with a white steeple sits empty. But there are signs of life, like a freshly painted mural on the wall with walruses surrounding the word "Love."
Cook Inlet Housing bought the church property a couple years ago. Typically, the agency would have boarded it up by now, said Sezy Gerow-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Cook Inlet Housing.
But a $3 million grant last year from ArtPlace America, a New York-based collaboration between major banks, government agencies and large philanthropic organizations, changed the plans. The old church has quietly become a staging area for an assortment of arts and culture projects.
Dozens of plaster body models filled the church earlier this year for the "100Stone" project, an art installation channeling the loneliness of mental illness. A dance company has used the church for rehearsals.
Last year, an artist group, the Light Brigade, filled the church with old Christmas light decorations to build art displays that would eventually be set up in Anchorage's Elderberry Park.
The church building will be torn down eventually and replaced with something else. But because of the grant, Cook Inlet Housing has been doing some small improvements to the space. For now, Gerow-Hanson said, Cook Inlet Housing hopes it can also be a place where local residents gather and talk about what they'd like to see at 36th and Spenard.
"We don't want to do anything to the neighborhood," Gerow-Hanson said, standing under the shell of an old sign, placing emphasis on the word "to." "We want the neighborhood to tell us what it sees."
In particular, the agency wants to hear ideas for the old Alpina lot. Gerow-Hanson said the agency expects a mix of commercial space and housing, but nothing has been decided yet.
The agency is in early discussions with the city about ways to help pay for some of the costs associated with a project there, said Chris Schutte, the city development director. Cook Inlet Housing typically raises money from a federal program that gives companies tax credits for investing in affordable housing along with federal and state loans, private foundations and other sources.
There's also plenty of discussion about making the stretch of road more friendly for pedestrians. Standing in front of the old church, looking up Spenard Road, it's hard to tell where the sidewalk starts and driveways end.
Ryan Callaway, a financial planner with North Harbor Wealth Management, was on his way back from a meeting when he stopped in front of the church to chat with Gerow-Hanson.
Callaway said his office was up the street. He said a big reason he bought the building was because he knew about the housing agency's plans.
"I'm excited all this is happening in the area," Callaway told Gerow-Hanson. If it all starts to pick up, he said, he might expand his own property.
Cook Inlet Housing has long concentrated on Mountain View to raise that neighborhood's profile as a place to live and shop.
Now that same attention is being applied in Spenard at a time when other changes seem to be on the way. Bond money approved by voters in April will be paying for a long-awaited road reconstruction of the north end of Spenard Road. The city is also working on a proposal for the entire corridor.
"The potential is incredible right now," said Jed Smith, the president of the Spenard Community Council. "Big-picture wise, Spenard is just right on the edge of new development all up and down that whole street."
Correction: A photo caption on this story originally incorrectly stated the project was being developed by the Alaska Housing Finance Authority, not the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Additionally, another photo caption misidentified Al Roehl as Al Bert.