On a recent weekday morning, snow fell on a quiet downtown Anchorage. Workers in neon vests shoveled, clearing sidewalks for pedestrians. But for the most part, the people never came.
Inside Side Street Espresso, the coffee shop on G Street, owner George Gee stood masked behind a plexiglass barrier and contemplated the present and future of the urban center as he prepared an Americano.
“It is like being in a dystopian movie,” Gee said, gesturing at streets nearly empty of parked cars.
An hour earlier, the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy had sent a buzzing emergency alert to phones across the state, warning that the coronavirus was surging in Alaska. Spiraling virus cases could soon outpace medical capacity, he said.
More than maybe anywhere else in the city, the core city blocks have been frozen by the drawn-out pandemic. In mid-November, on the precipice of a long winter, downtown seemed to be in a state of defensive hibernation.
Part of the problem is that downtown Anchorage, unlike some other urban cores, is largely a place people visit, not live. Relatively few people here reside in the inner city blocks, said Andrew Halcro, the executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority.
The area is reliant on people who used to come in to work, socialize and attend events. And they’ve largely disappeared.
“We’ve just seen those numbers drop so dramatically,” said Amanda Moser, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.
There have been no conventions, no concerts, no shopping bazaars or beer festivals or community storytelling events or theater productions. No Alaska Federation of Natives conference. No Arctic Comic Con. No orchestra concerts or Broadway shows or “The Nutcracker” ballet at the Performing Arts Center. There were no tour buses disgorging thousands of car-less visitors to wander the sidewalks, wallets open, all summer.
One indicator: Receipts from paid downtown street parking are down 60%, according to Halcro. Garage parking is down 70%, he said.
The thousands of workers who spent their weekdays in downtown offices, from the ConocoPhillips building to the National Park Service to the Atwood Building to countless small law offices, financial firms and other professional services are largely still at home — or have been sent back home by the fall virus surge. Most of the hundreds of court hearings held daily at the Nesbett and Boney courthouses are happening online.
For Side Street Espresso, many of the office workers who made a habit of picking up an Americano or a muffin at Gee’s cafe daily have now been working remotely for months. Gee said he’s lost about 75% of his usual business. Among the remaining customers are two regulars drive in every day to pick up coffee, then return to their home offices, Gee said.
Side Street Espresso is getting funding help from pandemic relief funds. But still, doing business downtown right now is “the opposite of enriching.”
His experience is not unique, he said.
“We won’t be able to continue to go over the long run, if things don’t change,” he said.
A few businesses have closed up shop permanently. Moser keeps a list on her phone: A relatively new Black Diamond outdoor goods store, the restaurants Pangea, Urban Sushi and the Red Chair Cafe. Others, like the Hard Rock Cafe and Westmark Hotel, have nailed plywood over their windows and gone silent. Glacier Brewhouse is operating, but Orso is taking a long break. SteamDot, a popular coffee shop, appears shut down for the time being. Some restaurants have been surviving on takeout, delivery and distanced indoor diners. Others are operating with a skeleton crew and drastically reduced hours. Many retail stores — a fiber arts store, a gallery — are open just a few hours a day, a few days a week.
Reimagining the future
Just before the holiday season, downtown businesses are looking to locals to help them survive a quiet winter.
On Fifth Avenue, The Kobuk is cheerful, stuffed with gifts and old-fashioned candy and scented by Samovar tea. The store’s owners have pivoted in any way they can think of — hand-selected Easter baskets during the April lockdown, doughnuts for pickup.
Still, “We’re getting to be pretty lonely down here,” said Deborah Bonito, who owns the business with her sister.
The building, at Fifth Avenue and E Street, has housed a store since before the last global pandemic hit a century ago. These days, the Kobuk is down to just a few employees from a staff of 14. Small-business relief funding has helped, but the store wouldn’t be able to survive another canceled summer tourist season, Bonito said. The holiday season will be crucial. They’re making a push for customers wary of stepping inside to call and let them select items for holiday gift baskets.
“We’ve been hell-bent on staying open. It’s been open since 1915,” said her sister, Nina Bonito Romine.
Despite the struggles, downtown is a vital place unlike anywhere else in Anchorage, said Moser. One of her challenges is finding ways to safely draw people to the area.
Her organization, the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, usually puts on upwards of 100 events per year, bringing about 100,000 people into the area. This year, big events like a holiday tree-lighting and business-to-business trick or treating have to be reimagined, Moser said.
Instead, there have been yoga classes in the park, hip hop dancing, parks with physical distancing circles and more of what Moser calls “low-impact activations” of space. There are lots more of those planned, including sending visitors on tours of holiday light displays, turning Town Square Park into an ice-skating rink and having dancers perform bits of the “Nutcracker” in the windows of the Performing Arts Center.
“These next few months will be difficult,” Moser said. “We still have a lot of vibrancy and things happening in our downtown. We need to keep helping people find reasons to come.”
Halcro says downtown is poised for a comeback. There’s a sleek, $60 million renovation happening at the KeyBank building on Fifth Avenue. His organization will soon make an announcement about a major development project that could bring more residential housing to the city core — a step toward making the area home for more people.
“A lot of this is just getting people living downtown,” he said.
Everything must go
Another impact of the pandemic: With much less foot traffic, long-simmering problems with homelessness in the downtown core have become un-ignorable.
These days, “I think it’s striking how many people you see on the street,” said Bonito Romine, of the Kobuk. “Maybe it’s more stark, now that there’s no other activity to balance it out.”
“There is just no question that the pandemic laid bare downtown Anchorage’s social problems,” said Halcro.
“When I walked downtown this summer, in July on a sunny day at noon, normally thousands of tourists would be wandering, Fourth Avenue,” he said. “The only people I saw within a two- or three-block radius were homeless people in Peratrovich Park.”
On a recent morning on Fourth Avenue, near the Sunshine Plaza, sidewalks stood empty, except for a woman huddled in layers of blankets. Across the street, at Wild Furs Ltd., the windows shouted of a liquidation sale. Seventy percent off! Everything must go!
Owner Adam Glazer is fed up. This year is about the worst he’s seen in decades of business: No tourists, and locals aren’t spending on luxury items like furs. His biggest frustration is with what he sees as an unchecked proliferation of bad behavior from unhoused people in his area of downtown. On Thursday, he walked outside his store to tell a muttering man with a complex tangle of rope knotted around his torso to leave his property.
The man yelled at him and shuffled away. Moments later, a different man stumbled down the sidewalk, a face mask drooping under his chin. He began to shout at Glazer, gesturing like he was going to spit. Glazer retreated into the doorway of his business, calling for the only other people on the street — the neon-vest wearing safety ambassadors, who had been shoveling sidewalks down the street. Two women hurried up and began talking the agitated man down.
“Robert, Robert, you’re not thinking straight,” one of the women said, aiming to soothe.
Glazer wanted someone to call the police.
The man protested vaguely, wavering on his feet. The women slowly guided him down Fourth Avenue, away from Wild Furs Ltd.
“The COVID problem is there’s no customers,” Glazer said. " I guess you could say this whole thing is more amplified, because all you can see on the streets is this."
On Friday night, holiday lights sparkled in the trees of Town Square. There were plenty of spots to park at a time that used to be nightlife’s peak.
If that was a sign of the times, some of the actual signs were not. The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts still promoted “The King and I,” a Broadway production that never arrived in April. At McGinley’s Pub, a poster still heralded its St. Patrick’s Day intentions from more carefree days earlier this year.
Voices echoed along Sixth Avenue as two men talked outside. On G Street, a man smoked and coughed and spat. Many of the stools were inverted on the barroom tables behind him. Not all bars were empty though. People did come and go from a couple spots on Fourth Avenue and F Street. Here and there, people wrapped in blankets slept in covered doorways and walkways.
Richard Haughey walked alone on Fourth Avenue. Downtown felt like a place where you don’t yell for help because no one would hear you, he said, half joking.
“Sitting at home I was getting down, so I figured I’d come out and check out what’s going down,” Haughey said. “That didn’t help the situation much.”
Haughey wondered if he’d find more life in another part of town before he continued on.
“It’s like Anchorage is on hold right now,” he said.