In an on-scene news conference, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Tuesday that the city's downtown transit center has so many safety and crime problems that only a large-scale remodel can fix it.
As if on cue, some of the regulars there interrupted the media event to pepper Berkowitz and one of his top officials with questions of their own and to complain in front of TV cameras that they came to the transit center because they had nowhere else to go.
Berkowitz promised big changes, but not many details, before the somewhat remarkable dust-up in the lobby of the transit center.
City officials have spent months examining how to change a pervasive atmosphere of criminal activity and an unwelcoming environment at the city's central bus hub. At his meeting with reporters, Berkowitz said he sees the transit center as the centerpiece of his vision for revitalizing downtown Anchorage.
Standing next to Berkowitz, Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, the agency that operates the transit center, said he has spent more than 500 hours there in the last four months. He also said he's viewed dozens of hours of security footage.
Data provided by Halcro show that between January and October, security officers had reported 4,393 instances of removing a person who was not at the transit center to ride a bus and was violating codes of conduct. Security called the Anchorage Safety Patrol nearly 1,400 times and the police and fire department more than 200 times.
Halcro said the scope of the problems warranted a more drastic approach.
"The only way to fix this building is to shut it and gut it," Halcro said.
Halcro said details of the planned changes, as well as a cost estimate and a timeline, would be revealed at an ACDA board meeting next week. He said it would be paid out of the authority's budget, most of which comes from parking meters and garages.
In recent weeks, there have been short-term fixes, Halcro said. The hours have changed for the transit center and for the bathrooms. Outside benches have been replaced with benches that don't allow people to lie down. The inside has been repainted, and new LED lighting installed on the facade.
Video monitors now scroll with airport-like "if you see something, say something" messages, as well as Anchorage trivia and information on where to register to vote.
Halcro said the now-shuttered Inlet Inn downtown was once the magnet that drew more than 400 calls to police a year. The transit center has long battled problems with crime, but those have grown worse since the Inlet Inn closed, Halcro said.
Taking questions from reporters, Berkowitz acknowledged that simply remodeling the transit center would not address underlying problems of homelessness and addiction. He said the city is working on a comprehensive strategy; earlier this year, the city brought on a new homeless coordinator to tackle such issues.
"(The transit center) is a visible place where these issues have come to roost," Berkowitz said. He said a remodel would send a message to private developers the city is committed to improving the area.
Though the press conference hadn't yet finished, transit center regulars and onlookers started asking the mayor their own questions.
"Why are you closing the bathroom at 5 o'clock?" one woman, Sarah Sambio, wanted to know. "The last bus goes at 10:30 p.m."
Halcro jumped to answer. He told her there were major behavioral problems in the bathrooms, with the worst offenses reported before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. He said the way the bathrooms are isolated in the back of the transit center was seen as a key design flaw.
"If the press wasn't here, I could tell you some stories that would absolutely shock you," Halcro told her.
Halcro later added that janitors have been recently solicited for sex in the bathroom.
Erin O'Shea, 38, spoke up and said the building was a place for people who had nowhere else to go.
Berkowitz started to speak, but O'Shea interrupted, saying: "That's really an underlying problem you should address."
The mayor referred back to his overarching plans for housing and homelessness. But he emphasized his reasons for making changes at the transit center.
"People are hurt, people are overdosing, people are in trouble -- it's not safe," Berkowitz said, his voice rising.
Tristan McGee, 33, told the mayor police were arresting teenagers, not adults.
Berkowitz started to respond that it was part of a "larger conversation," but McGee cut him off.
"I have been down here on these streets for 15 years now! Fifteen years!" McGee, who had a partly-shaved head and wore a backpack, shouted at Berkowitz. "And there is nowhere to go. And when you guys do build places you shut them down."
Berkowitz responded that while McGee might "saddle" him with the problems of the past, the city had ignored the problems for too long.
McGee said in a later interview that he comes to the transit center almost every day for warmth, and because it's a place to go.
"I mean, you go to the mall, but they'll kick you out after three hours," McGee said. "This is really the only place."
After the press conference ended, Cliff Elton, security supervisor at the transit center, said one of the mayor's questioners, O'Shea, had been banned from the transit center. He said he just let O'Shea in to listen to the press conference.
In that environment, security guards don't stay long, Elton said. He said his longest-serving guard has only been there six months.
Then Elton broke off in midsentence and excused himself — another bus depot emergency had cropped up. He and other security guards walked outside to a bus idling in the street on the west side of the building.
Moments later, Elton and the other guards were inside the bus. They pulled out a man who appeared to be barely conscious.
The man, who was elderly, with a white beard and a red hat promoting the Anchorage heart run, was placed in a wheelchair and brought inside.
"That happens three times a day," Elton said when he walked back to the lobby.
Soon, the mayor and TV cameras disappeared. The crowds ebbed back to look, at that moment, more normal -- people standing in the long hallway, sitting on benches, watching TV monitors and using the bathroom.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously quoted Mayor Ethan Berkowitz as saying the transit center had become a "cancer" in downtown Anchorage. That word was actually used by Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority.