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Downtown Anchorage is on the verge of a renaissance, thanks to this new strategy

  • Author: Andrew Halcro
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 24, 2018
  • Published February 24, 2018

An aerial view of downtown Anchorage on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In the summer of 1981, I was a 16-year-old kid washing cars at Avis Rent-A-Car on the corner of Fifth Avenue and B Street. Downtown Anchorage was a much different place back then; a junkyard doubling as a tattoo parlor sat on a nearby corner, prostitutes outnumbered tourists and hourly rooms were as ubiquitous as Starbucks.

Thirty-seven years later, my office at the Anchorage Community Development Authority, or ACDA, sits less than 100 steps from the same concrete pad where I washed cars as a teenager. A lot has changed over the past three and a half decades in downtown Anchorage.

Downtowns are the beating heart of any great city. However, economies waver, demographics shift and societal changes render existing infrastructure inefficient to meet changing demands. A soft economy has a more of a significant impact on downtown merchants because they are traditionally small, independent businesses that rely on sidewalk or mall foot traffic.

With all of the efforts and investments in downtown Anchorage over the last few decades to brighten, clean and make downtown Anchorage more attractive, there has been one critical missing ingredient: housing. With downtown's employment centered on the eight-to-five workday, some of Anchorage's best restaurants and boutique shops find themselves without foot traffic after 6 p.m. when downtown streets are no longer busy.

Three and a half decades ago, Oklahoma City was in the same situation as Anchorage. Most people left downtown when the workday ended and drove to their homes in the suburbs. Someone could sit in the middle of the busiest street in downtown at six o'clock and not worry about getting hit, a city council member told me during a 2015 visit to see their downtown housing initiatives. Today, the streets are alive with people, restaurants are full and shops are extending hours. Their concerted effort to bring housing downtown changed everything.

The missing ingredient to any successful downtown — and Anchorage is no different — is an established residential population. Friends and family come to visit, filling restaurants and shops well into the evening. Downtown streets are safer and more secure when they're active, while property values increase and retail storefronts become more vibrant and desirable. To quote a Walgreens executive with whom we discussed opening a new store in downtown Anchorage, "We love downtown Anchorage, but you need more feet on the street."

Over the last three years, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz made housing development in downtown a priority. Working with developers, the state and organizations such as the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. and ACDA, we've focused time and energy on making housing happen in downtown through successfully advocating changes to state tax laws, putting surplus property out to the private sector for development, working to create true public-private partnerships and conducting regular research on the demand for downtown housing.

And we're beginning to see these efforts pay off. The municipality sought competitive bids to develop mixed-use housing on its surplus lands at Seventh Avenue and I Street, which Cook Inlet Housing Authority won — and it plans to commence construction on Elizabeth Place later this year. My organization followed a similar competitive process to identify developers interested in the Downtown Transit Center, and we're moving forward with a developer who will produce residential and hotel units along the face of the structure. The Alaska Railroad and the Petersen Group are breaking ground on their Downtown Edge project, which will add 35 modern townhouse-style condos.

There's much more in the queue: ACDA is pursuing new housing atop a structured garage planned for Eighth Avenue and K Street to complement the senior housing project planned for the adjacent Department of Health & Human Services lot. Two current surface parking lots — of which our downtown has way too many! — are proposed for redevelopment, including the ACDA-owned lot at Third Avenue and C Street behind the Sunshine Mall and the "Block 102" parking lot that nearly covers the entire block at Eighth Avenue and E Street. We are also currently working with the municipality and J.C. Penney to plan for a future redevelopment of their almost 60-year-old garage.

Without a sizable, stable residential population, downtown Anchorage will not have "feet on the street" to live, work and play in the heart of our city. This has always been a crucial ingredient for a healthy downtown. And now, with public and private developers, the municipality, the Anchorage Assembly and other community partners are more engaged than ever in bringing housing downtown. The future of downtown looks bright.

Andrew Halcro, a former state representative and past president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, is executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority. 

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