A group of Anchorage residents is working with the state to convert a two-acre property cleared for the proposed Knik Arm bridge project into a neighborhood park with an orchard and garden.
Fruit trees, raised beds, a mural wall, a pavilion and a cider house built from a historic Quonset hut may someday occupy the empty property on Government Hill. The land housed the old Sourdough Inn, which was razed by the state Department of Transportation last year to make way for the proposed bridge and access roads.
Standing there on a snowy weekday morning, neighbors Steve Gerlek and Melinda Gant pointed out lilac, rose and raspberry bushes salvaged from the demolition.
"There is wonderful potential," said Gerlek, a retired BP project manager who has spearheaded the project. "(A) neighborhood just doesn't get this opportunity."
On Tuesday evening, a public project kickoff meeting will be held to brainstorm ideas for the space. The proposal has the blessing of the state DOT -- Judy Dougherty, the director of the Knik Arm crossing project, said in an interview that a no-cost lease agreement is in the works.
Dougherty said a community garden space falls in line with the federal government's goal of easing the proposed bridge's impact on the neighborhood.
"It's just been a great grass-roots campaign from the neighborhood, to go in that direction," Dougherty said.
If an access tunnel is built for the bridge, the park would be rebuilt on top, she said.
The orchard project is shaping up as a silver lining in a bitter relationship between Government Hill residents and state officials over the Knik Arm bridge. While neighbors generally agreed the Sourdough Inn was an eyesore, the community council vocally opposed the state's decision to demolish homes in the path of the proposed bridge, saying the state should wait until it had secured the low-interest federal loan required to move forward.
In July 2014, demolition contractors who arrived for a site visit with the DOT were greeted by several dozen neighborhood protesters who waved signs with slogans like "Haste makes waste."
Gerlek said the orchard project is itself "agnostic" about the bridge. All the project elements will be designed to be replaceable in case a tunnel is ever built, he said.
"What we want to focus on is not what is going to happen but what we can do about it," Gant said.
Inside Busy Beans Cafe in the neighborhood's old strip mall, Gerlek spread out a series of handouts and photos to illustrate the arc of gardening in Alaska, from subsistence to hobby to passion.
He pointed to a photo from the 1940s, taken from what is now his own back porch. The photo shows the raspberry bushes that still bear fruit each year.
"I'm the fourth family in my house," Gerlek said. "We've all been picking these raspberries for years."
Government Hill neighbors, many of whom are avid backyard gardeners, swap fruits, vegetables and other produce in the summer. Gerlek, a beekeeper, gives away honey produced by his hives, which he said he also sometimes trades for eggs. Cherries and apple varieties already grow in Government Hill.
With a coastal climate and high elevation, Government Hill is one of the city's best areas for growing fruit trees, said Julie Riley, horticulturist at the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service.
Riley also said she wasn't aware of any other community orchards in Anchorage.
"I think there will be a lot of interest outside of Government Hill," Riley said. "Because the idea of a community orchard is a really cool idea."
On the eastern end of the property, a Quonset hut dating back to the 1940s sits boarded up. The aluminum-skinned shelter was used as housing for railroad workers after World War II, and is one of a few remaining in Anchorage, said Julie Decker, director of the Anchorage Museum and the author of a book on Quonset huts.
Gerlek and Gant imagine moving the hut closer to the center of the property and using it as a cider house, a workshop and a storage area.
"(It would probably be) the first time that Quonset hut has been moved in 60 years," Gerlek said.
Neighbors also want to repurpose the empty building that faces East Loop Road and once was a piano store. That building might become the project headquarters, Gerlek said. Its 400-foot western wall, which faces the proposed garden and orchard area, is a potential mural space.
Gerlek said it will likely take between three and five years to complete the project. It won't be entirely free, he added: Fencing to keep out bears and moose and the rehabilitation of the Quonset hut will cost money. He said the project group is already applying for grants, such as the Anchorage Mayor's Community Grant.
But right now, he, Gant and other supporters just want to talk ideas. Should there be a theater space? A farmers market? A dog play area?
"We're going to find the needs and wants of the community first," Gant said.
Then, Gerlek added, "We're going to roll up our sleeves, like old-school Government Hill."
The project kickoff meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Government Hill Elementary School library.