Cook Inlet Housing Authority has developments across Anchorage, including a new 33-unit building in Spenard. It’s an area of town better known for funky artists and a colorful past than for state-of-the-art modern housing. The development doesn’t do much for solving the city’s need for 900 new dwellings per year, but it does help solve a different problem – the deterioration of a community.
“So this was Papa Joe’s – PJ’s – um, shall we say, gentleman’s club?” Tyler Robinson said, pointing to a new development on Deadman’s Curve near the corner of Spenard Road and 36th Avenue in Anchorage.
Cook Inlet Housing, a non-profit that builds affordable and mixed-income housing, bought the land at auction from the US Marshals about five years ago. Robinson, the organization’s director of development, planning, and finance, said it’s an area with a lot of history – the parcel across the street was a strip club, too. But Spenard is also a place that evokes pride. A few lots away sits an old post office building. It was converted to offices and shops years ago, but people remember.
“They’ll remember when they had a post office box at P.O. Box Spenard, Alaska,” he said. “And they came and got their mail right here.”
Robinson said Cook Inlet is trying to make Spenard about more than its past — they want to help give it a bright future. Over 10 years, Cook Inlet Housing bought up enough parcels at the intersection of 36th Avenue and Spenard to build the new orange and grey, window-filled apartment complex that has retail space on the ground floor. They also reclaimed a contaminated lot across the street and plan to eventually add another 100 or so housing units to the area.
But Robinson says their goal isn’t just to be landlords. “Primarily we use housing to develop community.”
Cook Inlet is trying to jump-start Spenard. “We felt that if we could sort of get things going in the area, then other investment would follow,” he said.
And it has. Up the street from the shiny new apartment complex, Laura Cameron stood in a half-finished bakery. Dipper Donuts is only partly open for business but they’ve started baking some batches for delivery.
Opening a box of donuts, she pointed out the pale brown speckled old-fashioned cake donut with salted brown butter glaze and the bright purple blueberry option.
She said they have other flavors coming soon, like a rhubarb jelly-filled confection. She tasted it once.
“It was brilliant,” she recalled. “It changed my whole outlook on the jelly-filled donut. I didn’t know they could not be gross.”
The kitchen behind her was already tidy. Fryers were empty, garbage pails full of flour and sugar were neatly stored beneath metal tables. The baking crew was gone by mid-morning, having worked through the night in a neighborhood with the aforementioned storied past.
Spenard has a reputation for not being safe, though the city’s crime map puts it on par with many other areas of town. Cameron admitted crime is a bit of a concern.
“We’ve taken a few steps to get a little bit of training (for staff members). We’ve talked through ‘what if,'” she said.
They have also installed more cameras and are working with neighboring businesses to keep an eye out for things that seem off.
But despite that, Cameron said they specifically chose Spenard for their new craft bakery. Partly because it’s a good location for delivering donuts and coffee all over town. And partly because its filled with potential, and organizations are investing in the area to improve it.
“The big investment in the road improvements was the first thing I looked at, and then quickly after that, it was ‘Oh yeah, Cook Inlet and Church of Love (community art space) are on to something. They’re investing as well.’ A couple different investments in the community that we could benefit from.”
She said the new developments will bring residents and shoppers to her door.
Tom McGrath owns part of the building that houses Dipper Donuts. He started buying property in the area 30 years ago because he saw the potential even then.
“When we bought those lots back in the 80s we thought this area is ripe for development,” he said.
He joined a task force to get rid of the massage parlors and sex workers. Twenty-five years ago, he started pushing for a road redesign that’s just now being built.
“We don’t do things real fast here,” he said.
McGrath is retired now and has sold some of his lots for the new developments. The new housing is strengthening the neighborhood and bringing in opportunities for new entrepreneurs, he said. “So it only took 30 years but it’s happening. So, it’s a good thing.”
Sometimes housing isn’t just a solution for stabilizing a family. It also stabilizes a community.