There's an effort underway by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and an owner of two unique buildings on Fourth Avenue between C and E streets to transform the spaces into a bustling marketplace.
It's the latest vision in what's been a yearslong conversation about potential ways to draw more business and locals to the bright yellow Sunshine Plaza and the blue 4th Avenue Market Place building next door.
Walk down the sidewalk there, and you'll see empty retail space mixed in among a bike rental business, a fur store and a Thai restaurant. Inside the marketplace building, would-be shops sit vacant alongside a gift store, a passport photo office and others.
Photos and trivia about the 1964 Alaska earthquake adorn the walls in hallways that were almost completely devoid of people Wednesday morning.
Combined, the buildings are 80 percent vacant, said Anchorage Downtown Partnership executive director Jamie Boring.
Renderings drawn up for the partnership in January show one possible plan for the site: new brick facades, rooftop seating with trees, and a red, block-letter sign that reads "Anchorage Public Market" after the style of Seattle's Pike Place Market. (The renderings also show an eight-story condo building on top of the Sunshine Plaza space, though Boring said in an email that part is "not very likely" but a good option for mixed-use development.)
The hope is to make the 144,000-square-foot space into a hub for local artists, craftspeople and food vendors to sell their goods. One idea is to put in a fish market. The dog-mushing murals on the exterior of the blue building could get covered by the brick facade, or redone, Boring said.
"The key is finding the right partners, a curated environment, and then finding a way to make it affordable for them to sell their wares," he said.
At this point, the plans are not a sure thing. The potential time frame is loose.
If this project — still in the early stage as mostly ideas — were to get rolling immediately, it would probably take about two years, Boring said.
The project also needs to land an anchor tenant, said Darryl Wong, who is one of the owners of the buildings along with his family. He's been looking for a grocery store or a drugstore to anchor the space in the lower level of the marketplace location.
"The economy is weak right now but we still have a vision," said Wong, who lives in Hawaii. "The vision is to make it a place for artisans, local artisans to do business in Anchorage and have a home, so to speak."
The Sunshine Plaza and its neighboring building are across the street from the Panhandle Bar and Avenue Bar, and business owners say homelessness in the area has been an issue.
"That little bit of investment could improve what's going on in these couple blocks," Boring said. "What you're seeing in those renderings is the best-case scenario, if you have unlimited time and resources."
It's unclear how much the project would cost. Wong said it's "too preliminary" to come up with a dollar amount.
But any large-scale project in downtown would need to be funded by some type of public-private partnership, said Boring. He estimated the cost of construction on a project like this would be anywhere between $7 million and $15 million.
Sheri and Bill Hess own the gift shop Rusty Harpoon, which has been in the Sunshine Plaza since 1977. Sheri said that area of downtown has had issues with safety lately, citing drug activity around her store.
"If we don't have a clean and safe downtown, we won't even have people bringing their relatives downtown to shop," she said.
Just down the block at Alaska Fur Enterprise, one of the businesses inside the 4th Avenue Market Place building, owner Lorena Hernandez said it's a tough spot to be in. One reason is the transient population there, she said, and another is that the space looks more like offices than a shopping center.
"This has been a challenging mall, many small businesses have come and gone," she said. Her shop sells handmade fur and leather goods and also does leather repairs and customization.
There used to be more foot traffic when there was a post office located there, she said, but that moved out years ago.
"People see the '4th Avenue Market Place' sign and they come in and expect to see a marketplace," she said. "And they're like, 'This is it?'"