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Pete Zamarello, colorful 'King of the Strip Malls,' dies at 86

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2014

Pete Zamarello, the one-time "King of the Strip Malls" whose personality and personal fortunes were as volatile as the boom-and-bust 1980s Anchorage economy, died Saturday at Mat-Su Regional Hospital in Wasilla. He was 86.

The precise cause of death is still being determined, but Zamarello had been battling heart troubles for years and shortly before his death was stricken with pneumonia, said his daughter, Carol Johnson of Hailey, Idaho.

A Greek-Italian immigrant who became a real-estate magnate during the economic explosion that accompanied construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline boom era, Zamarello leaves behind a collection of buildings that are now fixtures in Anchorage. He also leaves behind memories of an in-your-face personality, legal troubles and political intrigue from a colorful, if unstable, Alaska past.

Zamarello was born Panagiotis Tzamarelatos on the Mediterranean island of Chefalonia. He spent part of his 1930s childhood goose-stepping as a member of the Hitler Youth -- a necessity for self-preservation during Nazi rule, he told Alaska reporters -- and, by his account, escaped a Gestapo death squad by shouting a well-timed "Seig Heil."

He came to America as Greek merchant marine seaman manning a freighter; he ditched the ship in Albany, New York, evaded immigration authorities and, within five weeks, met and married his wife Patricia, with whom he was "instantly smitten," according to an obituary notice submitted by his family. He arrived in Anchorage a year before statehood with, as he told the Anchorage Daily News, nothing but "family, a hammer and a thick Italian accent." He worked as a construction laborer and handyman before switching from building structures to selling them. In 1965, he started a company, Olympic Inc., and the empire-building began.

He made his first big money by buying and selling North Slope oil leases, using the proceeds to build a mall in the East Anchorage neighborhood of Muldoon.

He built, developed and acquired properties that are still standing all over Anchorage and the Southcentral Alaska region, like the Muldoon Mall, the long Lake Otis and Tudor Mall and the Boniface Plaza. His strip malls were characterized by their quick construction and lack of niceties like landscaping or careful design. Many of his properties were built with distinctive blue roofs and some -- like the International Z Plaza, the Muldoon Z Plaza and the Olympic Plaza, named for his company, were otherwise stamped with his identity.

As he amassed a $150 million fortune -- and lost it when the oil-boom economy went bust -- Zamarello did battle with city officials, tax collectors, banks, campaign finance enforcers, the press and arbiters of architectural taste who claimed his low-slung strip malls and trailer parks blighted the Anchorage landscape.

To local officials trying to manage Anchorage's explosive growth in the boom era, Zamarello's business methods and aesthetic tastes posed challenges.

His home, in the area straddling Anchorage's staid Turnagain and funky Spenard neighborhoods, was especially striking -- a Greek-style manse with purple columns, said Sheila Selkregg, a professor of public administration and former Anchorage Assembly member.

"It was quite a design statement. He had his own perspective of beauty," said Selkregg, whose mother Lidia served on the Assembly in the 1980s and clashed famously with Zamarello.

Critics said he was pugnacious, garish, tasteless, obnoxious and reckless. But friends and family said he had plenty of positive attributes. He "had a brilliant mind" and was fluent in four languages, according to the family's obituary. "He was the most optimistic person in the world," it said.

That optimism was on full display in 1984, when Zamarello pooh-poohed predictions of an Alaska economic crash. "The gurus of financing say that we're going to have a catastrophe, but we're not," he told Alaska Business & Industry magazine then. "This downturn won't happen. The next 10 years are going to be even better."

In his heyday, Zamarello was also a big player in local politics. He contributed heavily to candidates' campaigns and had run-ins with the Alaska Public Offices Commission over illegal and laundered campaign contributions and payments that were alleged to be bribes. He had numerous conflicts with Anchorage municipal officials -- even though he was, at one point, the city's landlord, owner of the Hill Building, now called City Hall.

He was punished for numerous violations committed during the course of business, ranging from a federal income-tax evasion conviction in 1972 to a $10,000 fine assessed in 1988 for illegally cutting trees in Wasilla.

Most of those problems did little to slow Zamarello. But the late 1980s collapse of Alaska's economy took down his empire. When oil prices crashed, so did Alaska's oil-dependent economy, and many of his properties became nearly worthless. Beset by massive debt, Zamarello declared bankruptcy in 1986.

Zamarello insisted that many of his troubles were caused by unfair attacks.

"Because I am Italian, they say I am capo mafiosa -- what is that? When I was growing up, I could not even say the word mafia in our house -- my father would have killed me," he told Alaska Business & Industry, which put him on the cover of its April 1984 issue.

Greedy bankers were largely to blame for his financial problems, he said later. In one legal deposition, he said he would never be a banker. "I'd rather be a pimp in a purple hat with a feather," he said, according to a 1989 Anchorage Daily News profile.

Also unjust, he said, was an accusation that he directed his wife Patricia to smuggle $20 million in cash out of the country before it could be claimed to pay his debts.

"Twenty million dollars won't even fit in a suitcase," he said, according to the 1989 profile. "I know. I've tried it. It's hard to get $1 million into a suitcase."

A funeral service is scheduled for Thursday at St. Innocent Cathedral in Anchorage.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included Wasilla's Cottonwood Creek Mall in a list of Zamarello properties still standing. The Cottonwood Creek Mall was demolished in 2007 to make way for a new shopping center and Target store.

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