The Anchorage municipality has launched a major construction project in the heart of downtown, an early step in a long-term plan to modernize aging electrical infrastructure, and in the process, beautify the entire business district.
The construction work began last summer along a two-block section of Fourth Avenue, after tourism plunged during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving downtown relatively empty.
Last month, the excavators and work crews launched the second phase of the plan.
They’re chewing up and replacing streets and sidewalks along a four-block section of Fourth Avenue between A and E streets, an area lined with gift shops and other businesses that have begun to rebound as tourism returns.
Municipal planners intend to take the same approach for years to come, completing small sections every summer in the hope of upgrading downtown streets and sidewalks from Ship Creek to 10th Avenue, and from L to Ingra streets.
The plan calls for adding pedestrian lights in darker areas, new street lights using efficient LED systems, updated traffic signals and new tree-lined sidewalks and roads.
The downtown upgrades are the city’s top public works priority, said Gary Jones, coordinator of Anchorage’s capital improvement program.
However, municipal planners say it could take years or even decades to complete and could cost more than $100 million.
While the municipality is already looking ahead to construction for the third phase of the project as early as 2023, on another small section of Fourth Avenue, it will need to secure additional funding for that and other work.
Since 2018, voters have approved about $10 million in bonding to pay for the work so far, Jones said.
“We are trying to bite it off a little bit at a time, a block or two a year,” he said.
A need to fix lighting spurs a bigger upgrade
The project stems from a 2018 report done by Kinney Engineering of Anchorage. The study analyzed downtown’s electrical infrastructure, such as underground conduits carrying wires, junction boxes, lights and traffic signals, some of which date back to the 1960s. The report found that some of the components are nearing the end of their maintainable life and present potential safety risks.
It identified Fourth Avenue as the downtown area with the greatest need for the improvements, said Melinda Tsu, the project manager.
Tsu said the work on the electrical system and lights is driving the other improvements.
To access the underground conduits, sidewalks must be torn up. Changes to the sidewalks, such as making them compliant with the Americans with Disability Act, affect the curbs. That can impact the roads, so the roads are being upgraded, Tsu said.
“It’s the wrist-bone-is-connected-to-the-arm-bone kind of thing,” she said. “It is all integral.”
In this summer’s $6.5 million project, sidewalks will be widened in some cases. They’ll be improved so they no longer slope too much, which can create hazards for wheelchairs or cause icing, Tsu said.
Streetlight poles, some with eroding foundations, will be replaced and have arms for decorative banners. Pedestrian light posts will feature hanging flower baskets and banners, and maintain their historic look, she said.
Underground tree wells will be improved to prevent trees from dying, as some have in the past.
Amanda Moser, with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, said the upgrades are long overdue. They will help improve the aesthetics of downtown and could encourage new development.
“The infrastructure is incredibly outdated and it’s a barrier to growth,” she said.
Much of the construction is happening on weekend nights, bartender Jason Sites said. That’s hurting business at the Avenue Bar, near Fourth and D Street.
“The fact they started in the middle of tourism season is not really the best thing that’s happened to us,” he said, before pouring a customer a drink. “No one here is too happy about it on our first year back open.”
“It’s hard,” he said. “But it is what it is.”
Moser said that in public meetings about the project, some businesses had expressed concerns that the project could impact sales.
But the municipality has taken steps to help tourists and customers reach shops, including with flaggers and signs, she said.
She said project planners have created postcards that are being distributed downtown, highlighting shops in the construction zone and pointing out areas where a municipal agency is providing discounted parking.
Tsu said the city is taking numerous steps to avoid hurting businesses.
Sidewalks are being kept open for the most part, with alternate pathways provided if necessary, she said. And work is sometimes planned for early in the morning or late at night when most businesses are closed.
“We understand it’s difficult on them, being as strained as they’ve experienced through COVID times,” she said. “There just never really is a good time to impact businesses, but we do our best to try and understand their needs and limit disruption as best as we can.”
This summer’s work was originally planned to start next summer, Tsu said.
Then, aware that large cruise ships would not return to Southcentral Alaska until next year, project managers moved the work to this summer, she said.
But tourism this summer has turned out to be surprisingly strong. Independent travelers, or tourists unaffiliated with a cruise itinerary, have arrived in Anchorage in unusually large numbers.
That has made this summer’s work extra trying as shops try to recover from last year’s terrible season, some store owners and managers said.
They’re eager to see the work completed. They credited the work crews, led by contractor Neeser Construction, with moving quickly and taking steps to limit impacts to businesses.
“It’s better they do it this year than next year,” said William Ehelebe, manager at Big Ray’s clothing store on Monday, on the south side of Fourth Avenue.
“We’ll have way more people next year and traffic is still good,” he said, gesturing to two patrons as they walked inside the store.
Outside, a construction worker sliced plates of asphalt with a concrete saw, before they were loaded into a dump truck.
The construction work is scheduled to be completed in October. Some final steps will be finalized next year, such as installing street lights. It will be minimal work that won’t require digging and excavating, Tsu said.
Next year, the city plans to conduct design work for the next phase of the project along Fourth Avenue, just west of E Street.
Construction for that two-block section should begin in 2024, but possibly as early as 2023, Tsu said.