Yesterday Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA) Executive Director Andrew Halcro held a press conference at the Downtown Transit Center (DTC) to announce changes to the facility and its operation as a transit hub. The event rapidly devolved into patrons of the facility yelling random comments at the Mayor and Halcro after Halcro referred to the prominence of homeless people in the facility as “a cancer.” It’s not surprising then that some of the most important elements of the event and the ACDA’s plans went unreported.
Devin Kelly of the ADN did a pretty good job of generally covering the happenings of the day, so rather than duplicating her efforts I will simply direct you to her story and fill in the gaps below.
Here are the important things you should know:
There Is a New Sheriff In Town
No one in the media seemed to notice, but maybe the single biggest takeaway from yesterday’s announcement was a tonal shift in the DTC management philosophy. While the Mayor has been on a “Love thy neighbor” kick when it comes to the homeless, Halcro signaled a philosophical shift many might see as more in line with Berkowitz’s predecessor Dan Sullivan. Halcro is going to manage the ACDA, and by extension the DTC, like it’s a business not a social service agency.
That means Anchorage taxpayers are his shareholders and businesses that inhabit the building are his customers. The homeless, transients, or miscreant youth that regularly inhabit the building all day are neither, and thus aren’t the ACDA’s responsibility. Halcro sees them as a problem affecting his business he plans on expelling. Where they go from there isn’t the ACDA’s or DTC’s problem.
That might sound harsh, especially in this holiday season, and Halcro did sound a bit like a miserly old man chasing kids off his lawn, but that is exactly how you’d expect to see a business owner react if this problem affected their own business. Halcro signaled he isn’t a public bureaucrat primarily concerned with playing nice with the community, he’s a businessman willing to make the harsh, but necessary decisions to best serve his investors and customers.
Seeing Halcro stand in the middle of the DTC, surrounded by stereotypical DTC inhabitants, drop the hammer on many of them was a powerful statement of the direction he is taking with the facility, and the community, for better or worse, ought to know it.
A Business Strategy With a Public Purpose
So what exactly does the Mayor and Halcro want to make of the DTC? This is a question you can’t blame on the media for not reporting the answer to. After Halcro announced the planned two phase renovation of the facility reporters in attendance immediately asked the two obvious questions “What will the renovation include?” and “How much with it cost?” Halcro’s answer was to say they couldn’t say just yet because the ACDA board will have to make some decisions at an upcoming board meeting to better define both. You can’t really blame a reporter for ending the line of questioning there and moving on.
There is more to the story however. I asked Halcro in general terms does the ACDA have an idea of what they want to do, even if a specific plan is still to be finalized? Here is his response:
“The goal is to reopen the space with 90% of the footprint retail, which will allow us to police the property, similar to the 5th Avenue Mall. Today, because the public transit component is centered in the middle of the building, the entire facility is open space and invites the problems we are paying for.
By limiting and isolating the public transit component, we reduce their footprint and have a more manageable space to assure that the people in their section are actual bus riders. The other 90% will be targeted for an anchor tenant that brings something downtown that we need; food and pharmacy. We have been studying best practices of transit centers worldwide and are designing the building to incorporate those to make it more functional and safe.”
It would seem the DTC was initially designed and has been run with the idea it is first and foremost a transit center with any associated retail/office tenants being treated as secondary functions. Halcro plans to change that. Retail designed to meet community needs will be a primary concern and transit will be sectioned off and contained.
“This is NOT a public facility”
That is what Halcro wrote, in bold, in response to one of my questions. The ACDA is, as the name says, an authority, not a Muni agency. That means while it was created for a public purpose, it is run and treated largely like a for-profit entity.
In fact, Halcro was also quick to point out “ACDA pays almost $100,000 in property taxes.” The DTC is then more akin to a private facility than a public one, yet the general perception among the public and the homeless/transient population is that this a Muni facility anyone has a right to inhabit at their leisure. Halcro seems hell bent on correcting this perception.
Killing Downtown Anchorage
Largely lost in the chaos of the press conference was a specific morsel both the Mayor and Halcro threw out several times about how the dysfunction of the DTC was affecting downtown redevelopment. They repeatedly said some version of “The private sector has drawn a line in the sand…”
What they were referring to is the Augustine Project which would be built across 6th Avenue from the DTC on the site of the now razed Inlet Inn. It would be a $50 Million project that would represent a significant investment and could spur additional redevelopment in downtown.
The problem? Project developers have repeatedly told the Muni they can’t move forward with the project while the DTC continues to exist in its current form. As Halcro said, the project “Has been stymied because no anchor tenant wishes to be located across the street from a facility where police and fire have a constant presence.”
So the condition of the DTC and the activity it attracts aren’t just an amorphous blight that makes downtown less attractive, the Muni now has a posterchild for specific investment the situation is driving away.