A developer is laying plans for a major project overhauling a downtown Anchorage block, with a vision for residential and retail space, a hotel and more.
Plans for the project, estimated to cost more than $200 million, also include the demolition of the historic 4th Avenue Theatre, which was built in the 1940s and some community members have long passionately advocated for preserving.
“We plan to rebuild (the) façade and exterior marquee sign of the former 4th Avenue Theater and with modern, durable materials as part of the plan,” brothers Derrick and Terence Chang of Peach Holdings, LLC, a company that owns nearly all of the buildings along the block, said in an email.
The theater’s iconic sign has long hung over the central downtown street, and advocates have pushed to preserve its exterior as well as the various Alaska-themed artwork in the art-deco-style theater’s interior.
The Changs have been presenting their plans recently to community groups.
The Changs declined repeatedly to be interviewed about the plans. In an emailed response to questions from the Daily News, they said the project is envisioned as a mixed-use development, including hotel, office, retail, housing, parking and entertainment space. They’re calling it “the biggest private investment in downtown since (the) 1980s.”
“This project, Block 41 Development, is a reflection of our continuous belief in downtown Anchorage,” they said in the email.
The Chang brothers are the sons of Joe and Maria Fang, who have formed a real estate enterprise in Anchorage that, through multiple companies, owns several buildings in the city, including almost all of the buildings along 4th and 5th Avenue between G Street and F Street, as well as the 15-floor 188 Northern Lights building on Northern Lights Boulevard.
The theater was purchased by Peach Investments in 2009 for $1.65 million. The family also owned the blighted Northern Lights Inn, which they agreed to tear down in 2017 in order to avoid fines and fire code violations.
“The only economically feasible approach”
While prior demolition permits have sparked concern among community members who feared the loss of the theater, none have so far materialized and the theater still stands downtown, albeit vacant and boarded up.
Peach had previously proposed another project with similar amenities, but after it became mired in issues over tax breaks with the city, the project stalled. A spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson declined to comment on the current plans.
Now, buildings listed for demolition in a city permit include the theater’s address, plus multiple buildings east and west of the theater, including 608, 646 and 650 West 4th Ave., and 413 and 423 G Street around the corner to the west.
Most of the block has been designated as a deteriorated area, which makes it eligible for potential tax breaks.
“Like most downtown buildings, those on Block 41 are outdated, tired, and with inefficient building systems,” they wrote in the email.
The Changs said they determined that demolition of the buildings was “the only economically feasible approach.”
The Changs said the project’s next steps are still being determined — they are currently focused on a multimillion dollar renovation of the nearby former Key Bank building, on 5th Avenue. They said they are “still working through (a) years-long process with (the) Municipality of Anchorage,” as well.
Some of the buildings on the 4th Avenue block between G Street and F Street do not comply with basic Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, according to the Chang brothers. They said they’ve found lead, asbestos, failing boiler and electric systems and seismic concerns .
The demolition of the buildings on the 4th Avenue side will take place at the same time as an upcoming phase of the city’s ongoing street improvement project along 4th Avenue, which starts in June, the Changs wrote.
Notes taken during a late March presentation about the project to an Anchorage economic development group detailed plans for a hotel built above the fourth level of a parking garage.
“There is hope” that the project could someday also be linked via skybridge to the nearby Egan Center, the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts and the Anchorage Police Department buildings, the meeting notes say.
A representative for the developers declined to comment on the status of financing for the project.
“Once a building is gone, it’s gone”
Prior plans to demolish the theater triggered opposition from some, who cited the building’s iconic architecture and interior artwork. As word has seeped out on the newest plans in recent days, it has renewed calls to preserve it.
The theater once sat 960 people, decorated with a “rose, chartreuse and light blue color scheme,” wrote Alison K. Hoagland in the 1993 book, “Buildings of Alaska.”
The theater building’s ceiling features the Big Dipper and a wall in the lobby has a gold-leaf mural of Denali, according to Hoagland. It was developed by industrialist Austin “Cap” Lathrop and was designed by Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca. While work on the theater began in 1941, it halted during World War II, before being completed in 1947, according to Hoagland.
“By that time, the style was slightly out of date, but nonetheless fantastic,” Hoagland wrote.
Over the past decade or so, the Changs say they’ve hired experts and historic consultants to assess the theater. This year, they started what they characterized as an “intense” process for preserving and protecting the art, murals and relief pieces in the theater.
“We plan to rebuild façade and exterior marquee sign of the former 4th Avenue Theater and with modern, durable materials as part of the plan,” they wrote.
They said they’re also working with the National Park Service’s Historical American Building Survey program, “which is part of a national archival submittal to document/record every aspect of the former 4th Avenue building,” they wrote.
Heather Flynn, who represented downtown on the Anchorage Assembly in the 1980s and early ‘90s, said a plan to maintain the interior artwork and murals in the theater building would be an act of good faith on the part of the developers, given how loved the theater is. She said she also understood why, from a development standpoint, they wouldn’t be able to maintain the theater in its entirety.
“I think the challenge has always been what to do with it and who pays for it,” Flynn said.
Advocates over the years have pushed for preserving the building and voiced serious concerns over demolishing it, noting it as both important to the state’s history and culture.
“It has a special place in my heart,” said Cheryl Lovegreen, vice president of the Friends of the 4th Avenue Theatre, a group with a mission to help others learn about the theater and work toward its preservation, though they have not met as a group since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the group has yet to take a stand on the new plan, Lovegreen said she’s sad to see the building go and hopes the murals will be preserved and displayed somewhere the public might see them.
While she initially hoped the theater building could be saved, Lovegreen said she now assumes it will come down and has since shifted her concerns from saving the building to saving its interior artwork.
For Lovegreen, who grew up in the Anchorage area, the theater was a part of her life: Her first date with her husband was there. People are passionate about the theater, she said. It was a part of their lives growing up.
“People get very emotional on this subject, and I think that leads to a lot of people sounding like hotheads who are trying to attack the company, when actually they’re more focused on the building itself and that’s how it comes out,” Lovegreen said. “So I think because of that, there have been a lot of hurt feelings over the years.”
Trish Neal, president of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, said that she would rather see the building restored and repurposed instead of torn down. She said many people remember movies, dates or anniversaries spent at the theater.
“Once a building is gone, it’s gone,” Neal said. “It’s lost to history and it’s a real shame, because the theater has a lot of history attached to it.”
The building was rated by the preservation association as the most endangered historic building in Alaska right now, a list the group compiles to bring awareness to certain historic properties.
In the emailed statement, the Changs said that they’ve owned Anchorage property since the 1980s and live in the city, with kids in school here.
“Our downtown development is about believing in our economy and community and being willing to lead the way in investment and revitalization,” they wrote. “This will be a project that the community can be proud of while giving our economy the boost it needs and a taste of a bustling lifestyle downtown can offer beyond normal business hours.”