Anchorage seeks proposals for Transit Center overhaul

A People Mover bus. (Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage is trying to figure out what’s next for the downtown Transit Center. The facility was a central hub for city buses, but problems with loitering, substance abuse, and crime created what some have called a “hazard to health and safety.” Now, officials are reaching out to developers and the business community for ideas on how to re-invent the property.

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On a relatively quiet Monday morning inside the Transit Center’s bright atrium people read or chit-chat on benches as noisy buses drop people off outside. A small group of city employees, developers, and business owners stood around a man wearing a slim blazer with a neatly folded white pocket square.

“Did you want to take a tour?” Andrew Halcro, executive director the Anchorage Community Development Authority, asked. The group did, and eventually headed up a flight of stairs to look at vacant office space on the building’s second level.

ACDA is a quasi-governmental appendage attached to the municipal body. It controls all of the city’s parking facilities, including meters, several surface lots, and a few big parking garages, like the one attached to the Transit Center at 6th Avenue. Under Halcro, ACDA has gotten creative with parking and transit resources, treating them less like infrastructure, and more like real-estate. In May, a dance-party DJed by international musicians took place on the roof of the parking garage at 5th Avenue.

In 2015, when ACDA announced plans to quote “shut and gut” the Transit Center, it began phasing out the businesses and social service providers that rented space in the building.

“A year ago there were 12 tenants in here,” Halcro told the group. “Now there’s only one.”

All that’s left is Burger Express. And of course the buses, along with office space used by People Mover. But even those are going away. Over the next couple months, the city is overhauling its bus system, and new routes are designed in a way where the Transit Center will be less like a bus station, and more like a mere hub. So the city is reaching out to private partners, trying to get their ideas and proposals for what to do with the space.

“We’re really trying to get the building to a point where developers such as yourselves can come in and take a look at the facility and envision what it could be,” Halcro told the small cluster of people.

“Because obviously a building that’s been around for 30 years has gained a reputation, and to some degree a stigma,” Halcro continued, referring to the Transit Center’s low public regard, which many blame for deterring nearby development and investment. When Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration announced it would be gradually shuttering the facility, among its most frequently cited reasons were widespread public intoxication, drug dealing and sex crimes.

In the broader ambition of revamping downtown Anchorage, Halcro sees the Transit Center overhaul as the first move in a domino sequence that could get nearby parking lots and substandard buildings turned into apartments and businesses.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking with economic development agencies outside, especially in Oklahoma City and Wichita,” Halcro explained. Parking garages are a popular focus of redevelopment efforts across the country, in part because they tend to have prime real-estate in urban centers, according to Halcro. “So they’re doing all kinds of creative things with putting housing on the façade or mixed-use…so those are the kinds of ideas we’re looking for.”

Halcro doesn’t mean converting the parking garage itself into condos. The towering structure would stay the same, along with its capacity to store several hundred vehicles. His general idea would be affixing a new building beside the garage, one with around five dozen housing units above one or two floors of retail shops. Adding housing stock downtown is a growing goal for the Berkowitz administration, and something national chains like Walgreens have said they’d need to see in the area in order to consider opening franchise locations.

Achillius Gagnon was one of the business people on the tour. He runs AK Business Interiors, a company that rehabs building interiors.

“We design and tear down, and put up new Lego’s,” Gagnon laughed.

Gagnon thought the idea of potentially adding new shops and residential units to a parking garage was an interesting proposition. He came on this optional tour as he and some business partners were readying to submit a bid under a request for a proposal the city.

“We’ll see who we can team up with, and maybe– hopefully–be on the winning team to do something in here,” Gagnon said. “I think it’d be great.”

Any eventual redevelopment plan will likely have to involve multiple partners working closely with the Municipality.

Halcro expects proposals to be submitted and vetted during the summer, and potentially have a clear vision for what happens to the Transit Center by October.