OPINION: New 4th Avenue destroys Anchorage history with demolition downtown

The 4th Avenue Theatre was acquired by Peach Investments at the 2009 foreclosure sale when Northrim Bank closed the bidding with no bids; those of us attending breathed a sigh of relief. Then, Joe Fang asked the bank if bidding could be reopened. The bank reopened bidding, which we believed was unethical. The Fangs bid low, around $790,000, and bidding was closed.

Peach claimed that they “... invested heavily to maintain and repair the aging structure.” I requested from the Acting Building Official of the Anchorage Building Department that any building permit applications for claimed work be emailed to me. Based on what I received, there have been two instances in the past 13 years when that’s occurred. Under Demolition Permit C16-2170, there was a boiler inspection by the Municipality on May 26, 2017. According to the Municipality, “There is no record of a permit to replace the boiler.” Under the same permit, a status inspection was performed on Nov. 17, 2017. The Municipality stated, “There are no inspection comments under the other two demo permits C18-2375 and C22-1003.”

In an ADN article on Dec. 2, 2017, “Joe Fang, whose family owns Peach Investments, said at a December work session with the Assembly that he wanted to ‘assure everybody … we have no intention of demolishing the theater.’” He said the company needed the permit to replace a boiler, which he said would require demolishing some parts of the building’s interior.” The reason for the permit was to remove the boiler, which was apparently never done. The previous owner of the theater, Robert Gottstein, has confirmed that he replaced the main boiler prior to the Certificate of Occupancy in 1992 and the tandem boiler later. Since there were apparently no other permits applied for by Peach and the maximum amount one can complete maintenance on a commercial building is $5,000 without a permit, it’s questionable if the claimed heavy investment and/or “… water intrusion repairs, mechanical upgrades and a new roof membrane …” occurred. If they did, they appear to have been completed without a permit.

[Anchorage residents mourn as demolition begins on historic 4th Avenue Theatre]

Referring to the Nov. 14, 2006 Condition Inspection Report, Peach claimed that “… initial cost estimates to restore the building were too expensive for any interested parties to bear.” The actual cost estimate from a “Rehabilitation Cost Analysis” dated Nov. 13, 2006, by the municipality, stated the total budget to completely restore the theater would be $6 million, with a possible $2 million contingency for a total of $8 million. That is a very reasonable amount and not “too expensive.”

The claim that the basement encroaches into 4th Avenue is true, only under the sidewalk, but the theater has “grandfather rights” — it’s been there 75 years — and Historical Building waivers should allow this to remain.

[EDITORIAL: When it comes to historical preservation, what do we value?]


Peach’s claim that they “… explored numerous “adapt-and-reuse” method s…” seems to fly in the face of reality, and their claim that “Peach engaged and worked with an esteemed historic preservation consultant (with presences throughout the U.S.) …” makes one wonder. I was the leader of the Historic Preservation Team for the “Professional Capital Improvement Plan for the 4th Avenue Theatre” in 2006 for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and the municipality. Why did Peach ignore the fact that we had decades of experience on our local team? I presented Joe Fang with a letter at the auction by Northrim Bank offering our Historic Preservation Team’s expertise in the restoration of the theater. We never heard from anyone at Peach.

Our team had a plan to preserve/restore the theater as a multi-cultural, multi-arts facility with the vacation of the alleyway behind the theater to allow backstage circulation and a green room for a playhouse theater and/or movie theater, the basement a black-box theater, Sydney Laurence Room on the second level as a dance studio, offices for the many theatrical and arts companies in Anchorage, and the connection of the PAC/Egan Convention Center to the Key Bank to the theater with a sky bridge. The 4th Avenue Theatre would be a place for visitors and Alaskans during all seasons. As I stated on the HGTV show “Restore America with Bob Vila” on the Oscar Anderson House restoration in 2000, people don’t come to a place to see shiny new buildings, they come to see the history of the place they are visiting.

[A developer is again planning a major new construction project for a downtown Anchorage block. It includes demolition of the 4th Avenue Theatre.]

The claim that “Peach remains committed to a vigorous effort to salvage and preserve portions of the distinctive interior features in the lobby, mezzanine and murals” must be proven. As far as I know, the two large murals have not been removed to date. It is questionable if they can be removed without destroying them, because Robert Gottstein said they are “three-dimensional plaster with gold leaf that is mounted on chicken wire (lath?)”. Gottstein said he would be willing to donate the first $1,000 of what he imagines would be no more than $10,000 to remove them as long as they were for public use.

The claims of hazardous material mitigation is questionable. Gottstein has stated that he had removed all hazardous material, i.e., asbestos, except for some duct areas that are not accessible to the public. The municipality granted a Certificate of Occupancy back in May 1992 and would not have granted that unless the building was safe to occupy. Any remaining asbestos is limited and could be easily either abated or encapsulated. Any code issues can either be solved or waived, since this is a historic building that is on the National Register of Historic Places and the IEBC directly addresses these issues. The Condition Inspection Report of 2006 did not address lead-based paint, but any found can be mitigated by containment and is not required to be removed since this building is commercial and no one occupies the theatre. The handwringing by Peach and the mayor as to hazardous materials is not justified as a reason to demolish the building and doesn’t ring true.

Peach claims to have fully documented the building to Historical American Building Survey standards and “To date, most of this information has been collected.” I and many others would like to see proof of said documentation. I possess a copy of the “4th Avenue Theatre Historic Building Report” written by a local firm in the late 1980s that has a wealth of information on the theater. Peach claimed for 13 years that they would not demolish the building and now they are doing so. This demolition will destroy Anchorage’s historical center, and no amount of fake facade and/or fake sign will make up for this destruction. To place a fake as a historical facade and sign is an insult to the people of Anchorage and Alaska and a slap in our faces of what once was. I’ve always believed in honesty in my restoration of structures, and this is dishonest. I along with many others would prefer it not be placed in the maw of what appears to be an alien bug about to consume the 4th.

Peach has allowed the theater to decline over the past 13 years. Their lack of responses to viable offers from Alaskans to purchase the theater to restore it, the inability for anyone to view the interior of the theater and their now-broken promise to not demolish the theater have caused the lack of trust from our community.

Contact the Anchorage Assembly today to encourage them to stop the demolition until there is an actual building permit in place for the new building. Otherwise, who knows how long there’ll be just a void where the beautiful, historic 4th Avenue Theatre once stood, and we will have lost our historical center.

Samuel Duff Combs, AIA, NCARB, is a Historic Preservation Architect. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Sam Combs

Sam Combs is an architect running for Alaska State House in District 28, which runs from South Anchorage and the Hillside to Portage.