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Vibrant or vacant? Spenard community supports school repairs

  • Author: Jay Stange
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 18
  • Published November 18

on October 25, 2019. Aquarian Charter School leadership groups are asking the Anchorage School District to include repairs to its Spenard building in a future bond. Aquarian’s building is owned by the school district. (Marc Lester / ADN)

In some ways, Spenard has been frozen in time since 1975, when I was a fifth grader walking to school with my little brother, giving mean dogs a wide berth at the trailer park. Our homes are unique, a throwback to our days as an independent town, but a lot of them don’t meet code.

They have unsafe wells, old two-way wiring or sit on foundations made of railroad ties in the sand. As older neighbors give way to the next generation, we decide whether these family homes are tear-downs or candidates for renovations.

Crumbling streets, like Lois Drive, have narrow rights of way and lack sidewalks. We have many vacant lots; some are contaminated. There’s persistent poverty, violence, crime, homelessness, alcohol and drug misuse. I keep a Sharps container to pick up syringes.

Most Spenardians wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. We walk or bike to cool things nearby. People with different color campaign signs share jars of crabapple sauce over the chain-link fence. We work hard to make Spenard safer for families, a better place to do business and a good bet for investors, large and small.

Our work has begun to pay off.

Last year, we cut the ribbon on a $10 million Spenard Road improvement south from Hillcrest Drive, near John Weddleton’s beautifully renovated Bosco’s comic shop that was an abandoned car wash. There are wide new sidewalks and new publicly funded art, such as John Coyne’s SPEN raven and Tammy Holland’s cultural dancers.

Last April, voters approved a $500,000 bond to improve pedestrian safety on Lois Drive and $100,000 for Ure Park upgrades. The November before, an Anchorage Assembly resolution supported taking Fish Creek out of underground pipes and routing it above ground from Midtown Cuddy Park to Minnesota Boulevard. It recommends investing in greenways and trails. We recently opened a $5 million Fish Creek Trail expansion and renovation with new playgrounds, lighting, bridges and freshly paved trails. We are about to see the release of the Spenard Corridor Plan, a document to guide development, zoning and transportation improvements in our community.

These affordable public projects leverage many private investments.

Five families within a stone’s throw of mine did extensive remodels in the past 18 months. Where tear-downs were necessary, new homes are going up. Eric Visser’s friendly construction crew wave to my family in the morning when we walk past a house they are building on Outta Place. Visser Construction put up four units of modern duplex condominiums on Lois Drive recently.

A couple blocks to the south, on Oregon Drive, Cook Inlet Housing Authority just finished a modern steel-sided four-plex. They are preparing to make a design public for a big housing development near Chugach Way. The project is on a remediated site that had been contaminated by leaking storage tanks from a gas station. Spinnell Homes has been adding new housing stock all over Spenard for many years, mostly five-star energy-rated duplexes. The Writer’s Block, a brand-new restaurant and book shop on Spenard Road, hosts community gatherings such as live music brunches on Sundays. It used to be an adult book store.

My kids attend Aquarian Charter School, where we got in with a lottery three years ago. We walk to school, like I did as a kid in Spenard. The teachers and students are part of the Anchorage School District, but the distinctive curriculum is picked by a parent-run committee. It is one of Anchorage’s highest performing schools.

Aquarian’s building, like some of the Spenard neighborhood around it, is also frozen in time. The roof leaks, the boiler and heating system need to be replaced, some of the windows don’t close all the way. But the building is sound. It’s not a tear-down. We’d rather roll up our sleeves and fix what we have than build an expensive new school somewhere else.

Aquarian is a publicly owned school on city land so it’s up to the Anchorage School Board, the landlord for the charter, to make the repairs – or to provide a new building. Over the years, Aquarian has waited patiently for the board to bond the repairs, which will cost about $10 million.

The school district might not make the repairs. We might have to close or relocate the school. New elementary schools cost $23 million. Where would neighborhood kids play if the school closed? How would we manage another vacant lot in Spenard? We already organize cleanups of camp garbage on three other vacant lots.

In these uncertain fiscal times, it makes sense to do the best we can with what we have. A small public investment — a school board vote to put Aquarian on the bond this Tuesday — is the right size solution for all of us.

Jay Stange is president of the Spenard Community Council.

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