Several groups want the city of Anchorage to dust off plans for development of land that was once the site of the original Alaska Native Medical Center.
The groups say the 15-acre grassy lot, at Third Avenue and Gambell Street overlooking Ship Creek, could support housing, small businesses, gardens and other amenities.
Everything would be centered around a memorial honoring the site’s historical and spiritual significance for Alaska Native people.
They say the project could help revitalize a neglected area of east downtown once populated by several homeless encampments, before the pandemic redistributed the homeless population in Anchorage.
The organizations supporting redevelopment include the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which co-owns the Alaska Native Medical Center that’s now located in the University Medical District; the 3rd Avenue Radicals, a local neighborhood group; and Alaska Seeds of Change, a job-training group building a small urban farm at the site.
Vivian Echavarria, a vice president with the Native Medical Center in Anchorage and originally from Tanana village, worked at the first Native Medical Center before it moved in 1997. She remembers visiting the hospital as a child in the 1960s, walking through the halls with her mom to visit friends or family. Songs played by Alaska Native musicians there sometimes made her mom cry.
“People came there from all parts of Alaska,” Echavarria said. “People died there, people got their care there, people were healed there. There are a lot of memories there.”
Echavarria said Alaska Native people should play a lead role in determining how the site is used. In her mind, a memorial could include historic photos of the hospital and displays quoting former patients.
“It would be a meaningful place of respite to honor those that have gone before us,” she said. “So anything we can do to repurpose that land based on our values as Alaska Native people is really important. That falls in line with honoring our ancestors and spirituality.”
Alaska Native leaders have long wanted to see the site respectfully reused, said Dick Mandsager, former longtime director at both Native Medical Center locations.
A woman from Southwest Alaska sat next to him, weeping, he said. Her husband was dying at the hospital. But as a kid, she had survived a year of treatment in the tuberculosis ward.
“It was a very emotional moment as she told me her story, and I thought about the history of that hospital, with its celebrations of birth and recovery, and also the sadness, with the tuberculosis and other diseases and deaths that occurred,” he said.
‘Bring the whole downtown area up’
The Heritage Land Bank, a municipal land-management agency, owns the land. It released a master plan with development concepts for the lot in 2019, after meeting with groups and nearby residents. Renderings show residential areas, light commercial uses like a store, and public areas like an amphitheater and dog park.
A market study published in mid-2021 found interest among developers, and challenges like an elevated risk of ground failure during earthquakes. City incentives like property tax breaks or inexpensive leases would be needed, it reported.
The Heritage Land Bank was considering issuing a request for proposals to find a developer partner, the study says. The request has not been issued.
In the last couple of years the city has focused on other urgent issues, like the pandemic response and the homelessness crisis, said Christopher Constant, an Anchorage Assembly member for downtown.
Constant said he and neighborhood residents began pushing for redevelopment on the site many years ago. He wants to find a way to move the project forward.
“Downtown has often ignored its eastern boundaries much to its detriment,” he said. “It’s time to invest in that part of downtown, because that will bring the whole downtown area up.”
Shelley Rowton, a former Heritage Land Bank employee, played a role in advancing the project.
The property is one of the largest downtown parcels available for development, said Rowton, now working temporarily for the Anchorage Assembly.
A project can support the city’s need for housing and help bring more positive changes to east downtown, she said.
Hans Rodvik, a spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson, said the municipality continues to support use of the site with the plans that were developed through community input.
“Further development of this site is in the 2021 Heritage Land Bank Work Plan and will be prioritized as staffing allows,” Rodvik said.
But Rodvik said the project needs funding to move forward. “Those funding sources have not been identified,” he said.
Community groups continue to draw attention to the plans.
In late September, they held a public celebration highlighting the site’s past and possible future, with food trucks, live music and agricultural activities at the urban farm. The tribal health consortium unveiled a mural by Alaska Native artist Will Kozloff.
Affixed to a shipping container, the mural depicts an Alaska Native woman with traditional tattoos. It shows gray hands passing food to other, vibrantly colored hands. It features geometric shapes representing master plan concepts, including the circle at the center of the plans where the memorial could be built.
The mural symbolizes a transition from the site’s past to a future with more food security, said Joy Britt, senior manager of the health consortium’s contamination support program.
Britt said the gathering was a “call to action” for the plans to advance.
“We want to make sure the site isn’t forgotten,” said Britt.
She and others have helped win grants under an Environmental Protection Agency program to support activity at the site, including for studies showing there’s no ground contamination that would obstruct the proposed development and food production.
The potential for ‘something great’
Close to a century ago, the site was a ski bowl with a ski jump toward the Ship Creek area.
The medical center was built there in 1953, replacing the ski jump. The six-story building opened as a tuberculosis sanatorium for Alaska Native people. It later became a general hospital.
The hospital survived the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, but part of a parking lot slumped and the building’s main steel support beam cracked, said Mandsager, the former director of the Native medical centers.
The hospital was considered stable, but the damage led to its eventual relocation, he said. It was run by the Indian Health Service then — it’s tribally owned now — and it took decades to move up the federal government’s replacement list, he said.
It closed in 1997, once money was available to build the new Alaska Native Medical Center. It was demolished a couple of years later.
Over time, the lot and nearby area became “ground zero” for homeless encampments, said Rob Cupples, a member of the 3rd Avenue Radicals who owns rental cottages nearby.
That changed with the pandemic starting in 2020, he said.
The nearby Bean’s Cafe soup kitchen stopped serving onsite meals amid concerns about social distancing. And the city opened a temporary mass shelter at Sullivan Arena a mile south, drawing people there.
In the last couple years, the presence of homeless camps, along with issues like trash and drug use in the area, has been significantly reduced, Cupples said.
“This is a whole different place,” he said. “The approach to homelessness has shifted and that gives me hope that there’s more opportunity here. This site has the potential to be something great.”
Meda DeWitt, an Alaska Native traditional healer and president of a community nonprofit called Alaskans Take a Stand, worked with others to organize a blessing and healing ceremony for the land in 2021.
The event recognized the positive life events that had occurred at the hospital, and negative ones.
“It was for the cleansing and healing of the space and getting it ready to transform into something new,” DeWitt said.
Challenges, and potential
Several developers surveyed for the market study said they could consider developing the site, with city support to overcome the site’s challenges.
Apartment builder Shaun Debenham said on Monday the property has great views — and flaws, such as being a less desirable place for new housing compared to west downtown.
But he could potentially pursue a project there, under the right terms from the city, he said. Extra construction costs from the seismic issues would be one problem.
“It doesn’t pencil out right now without some type of incentive,” he said.
Tyler Robinson, a vice president with Cook Inlet Housing Authority, an Alaska Native entity providing affordable housing, said the earthquake concerns would complicate the authority’s ability to receive federal funding for a project there.
“Due to the seismic conditions Cook Inlet Housing Authority would likely not build affordable housing on the site,” he said.
But the housing authority will stay involved in discussions about repurposing the site, he said.
“Anytime you have a city asset that can be put on the tax rolls and be a use that enhances the neighborhood, that’s great, let’s figure that out,” he said. “We would love to see the city get creative to make something happen there.”