At a Tuesday morning press conference, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz previewed big changes his administration hopes will soon reach the Downtown Transit Center.
Literature distributed among the press highlighted improvements already rolled out. New interactive message monitors that flashed rules inside the lobby, new security monitoring, fresh paint, a brick facade, and new hours. Soon, exterior benches without backs will replace the existing benches, which are often filled with homeless people in search of a place to sleep.
“What we’re going to unveil today is a recognition of the commitment that the municipality has to public safety, it’s a recognition of the municipality’s commitment to transit, and it’s a recognition that if we work together with the private sector we can help bring about a stronger, more vibrant downtown,” Berkowitz told the crowd of a few dozen, equally split between reporters, municipal workers, and people getting on and off buses. “This transit center can be an important part of what downtown is all about.”
Andrew Halcro was next to the podium. Halcro serves as the head of the Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA), which was established in 1984 as a public authority tasked with managing parking services in the municipality. A little over ten years ago, the Assembly transformed the ACDA, creating a quasi-governmental agency that is self-sustained through parking fees and development revenues. ACDA owns the Downtown Transit Center and the adjacent parking garage, together which amount to a $24 million dollar property.
That property has become a major problem. Drug deals, harassment, sex crimes, public intoxication, and countless other social ills are present on any given day.
“By the end of the year our security forces will have removed over 5,000 transients from this building for violating code of conduct,” Halcro explained. “We will have called Community Service Patrol over 1,700 times to remove public inebriates. We’ll have confiscated over 900 alcohol containers. And we’ll have called police and fire over 500 times.”
City officials hoped that the issues would taper down after Anchorage closed the doors on the Inlet Inn, a motel that served as a hotbed for drug deals and public drunkenness, which was located across the street. Unfortunately, the Inlet Inn’s struggles simply relocated to the transit center.
Every Monday morning, Halcro said, he receives a briefing from the facility’s security. Last month those briefings included an incident where a janitor had been solicited for sex in the bathrooms — which are located in the back of the building, are a constant source of illegal activity, and pose significant public health and safety risks to both staff and patrons.
“Every Monday I leave those meetings thinking it can’t get any worse,” he said bluntly. “And it does.”
The cosmetic changes that had already been implemented were short term fixes, Halcro added. He was there on Tuesday to talk about the long term.
After 500 hours of analyzing this building, looking at the flow of people and the needs of the community — and, more importantly, the needs of downtown — we have come to one conclusion. And that is, the only way to fix this building is to shut it and gut it. There is no question that the transit center, over the last three decades, has become a real cancer on downtown. It’s negatively impacted business owners, it’s negatively impacted transit riders — people who just simply want to catch the bus to and from downtown and go to work.
The ACDA announced that they were working with an architectural firm to draw up some conceptual ideas and cost estimates, which will be made public at the agency’s next board meeting on December 3. The firm is currently analyzing other transit centers spanning the globe trying to determine what designs might best address the problems afflicting the current facility. Once ACDA settles on a plan, changes will be phased in, with the intent to make sure transit still operates while the shutting and gutting occurs.
While neither Berkowitz or Halcro could put a number on what the renovation might cost, they made clear that taxpayers would not be on the hook. ACDA will foot the bill entirely, they said.
“The main problem is that this building does more than just represent you,” Aaron interjected. Looking in his mid-twenties and accompanied by his dog Brother, he told me he frequents the transit center and didn’t like the tone of the press conference (he made several Star Wars references, casting Halcro in the role of the Sith using the dark side against the Jedi). So after reporters fired off a series of question, he piped in. “[The transit center] represents a place where people can go. And there is nowhere else for people to go. We don’t have anywhere to go. And so that’s really the underlying problem that I wish you would address. And not refer to it like a cancer, as you did.”
The sentiment that people who congregated at the transit center had nowhere else to go was echoed by several other people, who had stumbled upon the press conference and listened in.
“We are worried about the people here,” Berkowitz responded. “This shouldn’t be the only place that people go.”
“Alright, so where is there to go? Why don’t you tell me?” Tristan McGee chimed in, with frustration looming in his voice, but also a carefulness to make sure the back and forth remained respectful. He said that he felt like Berkowitz should talk to the Anchorage Police Department, who he said he often saw harassing teenagers at the transit center. His main concern was that the focus of retooling the facility would be done to create an environment where he, and others, could be “controlled.”
15 years I’ve lived on the streets of Anchorage. I’m not mad, I just disagree with what they’re doing. Okay? I’ve been here 15 years. There is nowhere to go, and when you guys do build a place for us to go, you shut them down. There is nowhere left. And now you want — you’re talking about building new places? All you’re going to do is shut those down as soon as you don’t like the way they’re going.
“But that’s something that we need to change,” Berkowitz replied, pointing specifically to his administration’s ongoing efforts to increase housing in Anchorage. “And one of the ways we change it is by not doing the same things tomorrow that we’ve been doing yesterday. We’ve got to do things differently, and we’ve got to do things together, and we’ve got to do things in a way where we talk with one another.”
The mayor invited them to stop by city hall and discuss the topic more, which Aaron told me he planned on doing.
Though the conference was aimed at the media pool, the unexpected participation from the community offered a rare moment of honesty from both sides of the podium. The actual stakeholders, who use the transit center every day and have strong and valid opinions about how changes should be incorporated, served as a healthy injection into the conversation. Aaron agreed.
“I’m a part of this community. And these are issues that touch us all, you know? The Sith and the Jedi,” he told me after the conference ended. When I asked him if he had any hope that the project would be a positive step, he smiled. “You can’t exist without hope.”