Sweeping changes may be ahead for Anchorage's downtown transit center as city officials wrestle with renewed concerns about criminal activity and an unwelcoming environment at the city's central bus service hub.
With the aim of making the facility cleaner, friendlier and safer, officials are exploring architectural modifications, enhanced training for security staff and even a new Anchorage Police Department substation, Mayor Dan Sullivan said in an interview last week.
"We recognize there's a problem," said Sullivan, who met Friday with the heads of Anchorage's police, transit and legal departments, as well as the city manager and the director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, the agency that operates the transit center.
For years, drug dealing, public drunkenness, fighting and other types of nuisance behavior have dogged the transit center, a publicly owned building. In early 2013, APD's Community Action Policing team identified the transit center as one of several spots that might be related to a spike in downtown crime, in addition to Town Square Park and the now-shuttered Inlet Inn. Complaints about public safety at the transit center have prompted police interventions in the past.
But the problems seem to keep returning. This time, Sullivan said, officials are focusing on the long term, not just "hotspot policing."
"I think our group has got some really good ideas … not just to make temporary changes dealing with a surge in some kind of activity, but permanent changes that will hopefully transform the character of the transit center," Sullivan said.
In a signal of efforts underway, the Community Action Policing unit recently returned to the transit center to survey passengers and tenants and develop recommendations for future action. Similar to a tack taken in Town Square Park last summer, officials are investigating whether security improvements can be combined with changes in the physical environment to create a space that is "more user-friendly and, quite frankly, safer," Sullivan said.
A lot of lost souls
Those who work inside the transit center said they see drug sales, fist fights, drunkenness and other disturbances on a regular basis.
"A lot of people are scared to come in," said Marcland Morgan, whose wife, Pamela, owns a small store called Cuteness near the western entrance of the transit center.
Jedediah Smith, chair of the city's Public Transit Advisory Board, which has made cleaning up the transit center a key initiative in the last year, said he visited the facility on a recent lunch break and observed what appeared to be a drug transaction. Then, Smith said, one of the people involved saw Smith watching and aggressively confronted him.
"There is an element of menacing behavior that has become pervasive," Smith said.
Inside the transit center on a recent weekday, groups of people filtered into a pizzeria and burger restaurant in the front lobby. They walked past the dimly lit security office on the eastern side of the building to sit on benches or stand in the lobby area. Some leaned on high tables inside and talked beneath the sign showing arrivals and departures.
Toward the back western entrance, three small stores fit into an oddly shaped hallway with sharp corners. The front windows of a convenience store were blocked from sight by towers of Pepsi, chips and coffee. Near front entrances, people gathered and smoked.
The layout of the facility makes it easy for people to stay out of sight, officials said.
At Alaska's Best Communications, a cellphone store located in the facility, manager Matthew Medina said he sees people who come to use the transit center for its intended purpose, as a transportation hub. Then there are people who just seem to hang out, some of whom are homeless, Medina said.
Medina called working at the transit center "spiritually draining."
"There's a lot of lost souls here," he said.
For months, a woman and her dog sat in the far west corner of the transit center near the front of Morgan's store each day. She arrived when the transit center opened early in the morning and stayed until it closed late at night, officials said.
The woman declined to speak to a reporter in March, but she was mentioned in an April memo to the transit advisory board from Sharon Chamard, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. In her memo, completed after a March tour of the transit center, Chamard observed that the presence of people gathering for extended periods of time at the transit center gave the impression that it was "a place to 'hang out.'" She noted that the public ownership of the building complicates the ability of security officers to ask people to leave, and said the city might consider privatizing the facility.
Chamard also wrote critically of unsanitary conditions at the transit center, and said maintenance was the "most pressing issue" in an environment that could be seen as permissive.
"The walls inside the waiting area are dirty," Chamard wrote. "The floors in the bathrooms, particularly in the corner, are dirty … the overall impression of the space is one of dirtiness and poor maintenance."
Intersection of social services
Chamard and others have also suggested that the Anchorage Community Development Authority seek to shift the mix of tenants away from social services and criminal justice. Chamard wrote in her report that the center functions as a "de-facto social services center."
Adjacent to the transit center, the Department of Corrections operates an ankle-monitoring facility through a separate entrance. On the mezzanine floor, up a flight of stairs, a drug and alcohol outpatient program leases a space next to the Listening Post, a space where people can drop in and sit or talk to volunteers, and a teen center run by Alaska Youth Advocates.
Jim Morgan, co-owner of Jett-Morgan Treatment Services, the outpatient program, said the program's location makes sense, because the majority of people who come into the treatment center have lost their driver's licenses because of DUI convictions. Others are on federal probation, he said.
Morgan -- no relation to Marcland Morgan -- said his clients generally aren't part of the group causing problems for the transit center. Out of several thousand clients in four years, Morgan said he did remember one or two who told him they used to virtually live in the transit center, and felt safer there than at the Brother Francis Shelter. But he said some clients feel threatened when coming to the transit center, and he advises people to use back elevators.
Morgan said he once intervened when a man was hitting a woman on the bottom floor. He said he's noticed an increased police presence in recent days, and that's a good thing.
"It's a bad face for the muni," Morgan said. "Especially when more and more tourists are coming around."
Marcia Wakeland, co-founder and director of the Listening Post, also located in the transit center, said she sees both sides of the issue.
She said the transit center should be safe and welcoming -- but efforts to make it that way shouldn't displace people, either.
"I totally agree, (the transit center) isn't a welcoming place for most people who want to ride a bus. It is scary for people who aren't used to it," Wakeland said. "At the same time, I have a real concern for the homeless and the poor."
A hang-out spot
Officials made a point of saying that the problems don't appear to stem from people who come to the transit center to ride the bus. Rather, it's the people who use the transit center as a gathering place or as a shelter, and sometimes ignore posted codes of conduct, they said.
"Unfortunately, the transit center has been identified as a place to hang out," said Carlotte Mack, a member of the city's Public Transit Advisory Board and chief operating officer for Covenant House, the state's largest youth shelter. She said Covenant House encourages the youths at the shelter to avoid the building altogether.
Law enforcement and security staff run into tricky legal questions when it comes to patrolling public places, like the inside of the transit center. After all, any law-abiding person, regardless of appearance, has the right to be in those places.
Sullivan said the group working on the transit center is concerned about the amount of training being given to the security officers who patrol the building. He said APD officers may conduct future training with the security officers so they know what their authority is inside and outside the building and when they can make arrests.
Moving the transit center's security kiosk to a more visible place may be another option, Sullivan said.
Brent Young, security supervisor with Nana Management Services, the private security contractor for the facility, declined to comment Friday.
The Anchorage Community Development Authority, meanwhile, has committed to reviewing potential architectural changes that would eliminate secluded areas, Sullivan said. In an emailed statement, development director Sue Lukens said the organization is "working closely with all our partners at the Transit Center," including police, to ensure public safety.
Anchorage police chief Mark Mew said the transit center will be an "interesting project" because of the number of different groups involved. He also said that lessons were learned in Town Square Park last summer in terms of public process -- the unannounced removal of nine trees to address public safety concerns infuriated park advocates and members of the city's gardening community.
Mew noted that in the past two years, the Inlet Inn has closed and there have been changes to the physical environment at Town Square Park -- two pieces of what he called the "triumvirate of hotspots" downtown, all involving the Community Action Policing unit.
"It's time to do something to the transit center piece," Mew said.