Twelve noon on a workday and downtown Anchorage is quiet. Lots of empty parking spaces. Hardly any traffic. Just a few people walking around.
The area was once the heart of the city, but the center of business activity and new investment has moved to Midtown. Street-level businesses downtown are suffering. Some restaurants have closed for lunch service. Business is dead.
"The tales of why downtown has stagger-stepped for so many years are myriad," said Jamie Boring, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, a business improvement district.
Some of those tales reflect cultural changes, including the rise of online shopping. The ongoing Alaska recession also has hit downtown hard.
Every setback is unique. The Williwaw bar and restaurant complex opened just as the economy fell and now is in financial trouble.
But Boring feels, and I agree, that government disinvestment hurt, too.
He calculated statistics showing downtown gets back much less than other areas of town in city capital spending compared to the taxes it pays. He would like to see more money put into improving and maintaining the streetscape to attract private investment.
Downtown also carries the weight of community problems, with a concentration of social services, including the close proximity of a campus for the homelessness and the Anchorage jail. The state dumps problem offenders from all over Alaska in downtown Anchorage.
"Yes, you can see long-term disinvestment. It's terrible," said Chris Constant, who represents the area on the Anchorage Assembly.
But he doesn't blame city government.
Constant said the Alaska Department of Transportation should fix outdated streets. Fifth and Sixth avenues are built for far more traffic than they carry and could be narrowed and landscaped to make the area more attractive to pedestrians.
The loss of the Legislative Information Office was a major blow. The Alaska Legislature contracted to build a stylish new office on Fourth Avenue, then refused to pay for it and moved to Midtown, in violation of community and state policies to keep government offices downtown.
Litigation over the walk-away continues. The building remains empty.
Private offices have moved away, too. Downtown has seen no new private office buildings constructed in many years, while plenty of large buildings have gone up in Midtown. Same story with hotels.
Land prices and abundant parking lure builders to Midtown. But public safety plays a part, too.
Boring's organization fields street patrol ambassadors, as well as cleaning the area and putting on events. A self-voted levy on downtown property owners funds most of the work.
The patrols were intended to be additive to the Anchorage Police Department, something like a mall security detail. But Boring believes the city has allowed that effort to displace money it should be spending.
When the district started (and I was heavily involved with that, as a member of the Anchorage Assembly), the city, state and federal governments contributed with payments in lieu of taxes, but Boring said that stopped at some point.
In 2020, property owners will vote on whether to continue the improvement district with its special tax, which raised $1.1 million last year to support the privately directed services. If voters don't feel fairly treated, they might say no.
Boring doesn't blame Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who he says has cooperated with the district and created opportunities for the area.
After a long career in the Marine Corps, he said, "I didn't know this was going to be a political job."
Constant, who is usually free with criticism, said Berkowitz has done his best with what he has been given. He believes the mayor has made progress on homelessness.
"He's housing the people who have been haunting our streets for a long time," Constant said.
Berkowitz does deserve credit for creating the conditions that would make a downtown renaissance possible.
His administration increased the Anchorage Police Department from 320 to 435 officers, a process that took his entire first term. With those numbers, the department has fielded foot patrols downtown that Berkowitz said cost around $1 million a year.
Officers have largely resolved chronic anti-social activity at the Town Square (now it is deserted) and calmed the Transit Center (even accounting for the recent arson fire in a restroom). A crackdown on loitering and drug dealing at the Brother Francis Shelter campus also had results.
But Boring's members complain that the vagrants who were outside the shelter moved into their entryways and stairwells.
When scary street people accost office workers downtown, offices end up moving to Midtown, where the car-oriented urban design keeps everyone on the other side of auto glass — both those you want to keep away, and maybe people you wouldn't mind meeting.
Downtown could have exciting, fun street life. It was built for walking. What's needed is consistent policing, housing for the homeless and a critical mass of activity to bring the area back to life.
Berkowitz believes the streets can be enlivened with more people living there — not more offices. He fired off a long list of planned residential developments in the offing. He also pointed to new amenities, like a park on the roof of a parking garage, that have made the area more exciting with little cost.
I tried to find out mayoral candidate Rebecca Logan's vision for downtown. After an email exchange about the subject of my column, she did not respond.
Berkowitz said downtown had suffered cumulative problems, including the economy, the state's fiscal crisis — with fewer workers and a closed courthouse on Friday afternoons — and the lack of state attention to major roads. But he also played the cheerleader.
For example, he pointed to the Anchorage Museum expansion. That is a big deal, and if the other development projects happen that he has been pushing, downtown could turn the corner.
"There's some really good stuff happening downtown. There's a vitality here there hasn't been," he said.
I hope he's right and the centrifugal force spreading and thinning Anchorage can finally stop and allow an urban core to thrive.
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