OPINION: The new 4th Avenue – preserving history with new investment downtown

4th Ave, 4th Avenue, 4th Avenue Theater, Anchorage, downtown, downtown Anchorage

The 4th Avenue Theater was acquired by Peach Investments at the 2009 foreclosure sale. Peach has invested heavily to maintain and repair the aging structure while looking for viable renewal options. Such efforts included water intrusion repairs, mechanical upgrades and a new roof membrane to decelerate the deterioration, whilst keeping all utilities and services active on a non-occupiable building.

The structure had 40 years of deferred maintenance and the problems have been compounding rapidly. Building officials and certified inspectors found serious, unsurmountable code compliance issues that are considered potentially dangerous in the event of a cataclysmic event. Specific violations were accessibility, egress, fire and life safety, heating/HVAC/electrical/plumbing systems, and structural/seismic concerns as well. Environmental contractors were hired to mitigate various levels of hazardous material such as asbestos, mastics and lead. Even all the way back in 1989, the municipality declared the theater building a dangerous building. Subsequently, a detailed Condition Inspection Report published Nov. 14, 2006, documented all the faulty elements of the property, and the initial cost estimates to restore the building were too expensive for any interested parties to bear.

Another serious problem was found recently when city planners of the 4th Avenue Signals and Lighting Upgrade project discovered that the 4th Avenue Theater building’s facade elements encroach the sidewalk right-of-way, and the basement encroaches further beyond the property line underground by an approximately 15 feet into Fourth Avenue.

The municipality does not hold any agreement for right-of-way encroachment with property owners, and it would require backfilling the void where the existing basement is. Without the basement, the structure will not seismically support the building façade.

Over the years, Peach explored numerous “adapt-and-reuse” methods by converting the existing building into a new use, but none were economically feasible as a stand-alone project — even a potential partnership with a global eatery operator who is known for repurposing “older” buildings. Shortly after retaining ownership of the property and as part of its initial due diligence of the acquired “historic” property, Peach engaged and worked with an esteemed historic preservation consultant (with presences throughout the U.S.) to examine the building, its historic significance and integrity while exploring redevelopment opportunities based on examples around the country. They also explored how to best capture and preserve key historic building aspects such as the art deco inspired look and feel we associate with 4th Avenue itself and the former theater.

As was stated in the report, “the total demolition of the 4th Avenue Theater building would be a loss. But the economics have worked against this theater since the 1960s. Its reality has been the same for 40 years as the building suffered under the ever-growing weight of deferred maintenance. Its future has always been about having a viable revenue stream. In this sense, the decision on its future was decided a long time ago.” In the end, a viable reuse strategy was not found and demolition was recommended.

Peach recognizes the affinity by some for the 4th Avenue Theater building. It also knows the history of repeated false starts and failed enterprises in keeping this building alive. It also acknowledges that a 1,000-seat single-plex movie theater or performance venue in downtown Anchorage is not a viable option, as proven back in 1989.

We recognize the best path forward would be to integrate as much of the historically significant features of the existing building as possible into a new development project. This strategy would generate financing and revenues and allow the retention of the most character-defining features.

There have been a variety of historic preservation projects across the country that have successfully accomplished this at varying degrees defined by the specific circumstances of the site.

In order to prioritize the preservation work necessary to document, protect and remove art, fixtures and other special features of the building, we utilized the expertise of the National Park Service, Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP), for advice on best practices for documentation with the goal of including the building in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

The Historic American Building Survey is the nation’s first federal preservation program, begun in 1933 to document America’s architectural heritage. It is a permanent record, kept by the Department of Interior, consisting of photographs, detailed architectural drawings and written historical reports. To date, most of this information has been collected. A high-definition laser scan of the theater building, both exterior and interior, has been completed as well as photo documentation using current federal historic preservation standards for long term visual storage that includes using large-format black and white film.

When completed, this information will be part of a national database maintained at the Library of Congress, where records on more than 40,000 historic sites are maintained in are available to the public copyright free in both hard copy and via the Library’s website.

Peach remains committed to a vigorous effort to salvage and preserve portions of the distinctive interior features in the lobby, mezzanine and murals. In addition, a project to remove, conserve and crate the interior artwork has been completed. Namely, the two large Alaska history murals flanking the stage, the curved Denali relief in the lobby, and the wildlife panels by the staircase, were handled in such a way they may be restored and reinstalled in a later development. Custom crates were designed and built for each unique piece of art and have been fully documented and stored off site at a secured location. The removal and restoration were performed by a local professional artist and team.

Other than the murals, other salvageable interior aspects of the theater have been removed from the premises, categorized and stored so they may be worked into the future design where possible.

Items include but not limited are: the stars and light fixtures/chandeliers hung in theater ceiling, wood doors and hardware, “4th Avenue” interior sign, aisle signs, sections of stairs and banister, etc. Removal and reuse of additional, more complicated items from the built interior will happen under the direction of the company certified to handle hazardous material in case further remediation is necessary.

The building we drive past now is not the building many remember from the past, nor the authentic representation of the original version. It has not been inhabited for almost 20 years. In order to bring life back to the “theater” building, it is necessary to reimagine it being part of a larger development: the type of new development that will honor and celebrate the rich history and diverse architecture of Anchorage downtown’s unique contexts while breathing new life and creating a safer and vibrant district where investment is long overdue.

Starting this week, a certified contractor will be onsite at Block 41 to conduct and carry out required environmental remediation and demolition activities. This will include assessment and removal of the “4th Avenue” characters on the marquee sign (both sides) as well as other facade aspects. While the condition and removal challenges of the current sign are not yet fully understood, development plans include recreating a marquee sign with modern materials using the current sign measurements, design and color palate as guidance. Future display or use of the marquee sign will be determined after its condition is assessed and future sign designs are finalized. The plan is to maintain the street-level definition of 4th Avenue and allow the reconstruction of the distinctive Art Deco façade.

Over the next few weeks, the community can expect to see safety fencing installed and crews hard at work on the next stages of hazardous material mitigation and salvage of any remaining items. These steps will make way for making way for the redevelopment of an area downtown Anchorage that will serve as a catalyst to creating a better, safer place for our families and visitors. We are excited to be part of a new downtown.

Derrick and Terence Chang are co-owners of Peach Holdings, the LLC that owns the 4th Avenue Theater. Peach Holdings, LLC, is a private, family-owned company located in Anchorage, currently leading a $41 million-plus renovation of the former Key Bank Plaza at 601 Fifth Ave. in downtown Anchorage.

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