(Originally published by Alaska Commons on February 13, 2017.)
Last Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly voted 9-1 to allow city officials to obtain property by use of eminent domain to rebuild the northern corridor of Spenard Road.
The controversial decision comes after months of tense negotiations between several Spenard property owners and the city. The latter seeks to convert the section of Spenard Road between Hillcrest Drive and 30th Avenue from four lanes to three, with new sidewalks, bike lanes, and landscaping. The former claim that they are not being fairly compensated by the city, and refuse to settle.
To expedite the process, the city asked the Anchorage Assembly to authorize eminent domain, which was granted last Tuesday. Now the issue may head to court while construction starts on the $13.8 million-dollar project later this spring.
Plans to rebuild the northern corridor of Spenard Road have been in the works for more than a decade. Studies conducted by the Department of Transportation (DOT) revealed safety problems and deterioration obvious to anyone who has traveled the crumbling sidewalks. In 2009 plans to refurbish Spenard Road were stalled after facing opposition, but under the Berkowitz administration have gained new momentum.
The road upgrade is just one of several rehabilitation projects taking place in the area. In 2012 the Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA), which has its main office in Spenard, purchased the lot adjacent to their campus along with several others on 36th Avenue. The unique zoning of Spenard allows specific areas to be used for both commercial and residential purposes; and CIHA the opportunity to build a combination of storefronts and high-density low-income housing.
It is an ambitious undertaking that would provide jobs and alleviate the shortage of affordable housing in the municipality. Yet, the controversy surrounding the upcoming road construction and use of eminent domain to greenlight that project reveals deeper issues within the community.
In 2010, PJs strip club was seized by the federal government after an investigation revealed owner Hallie Dean McGinnis was using the business as a front to sell cocaine.
The closure of the establishment marked the end of a long history of prostitution and drug abuse in the Spenard area. The construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline bought fast money and vice to the West Anchorage community. Seedy bars, nightclubs, and other disreputable businesses catered to the carnal desires of pipeline workers looking for a night of fun after months on the slope.
In the years following the oil boom there has been an effort to clean up red-light districts like Spenard, and curtail their high crime rates.
In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics completed a four-year study confirming the relationship between poverty and delinquency. At first glance, an influx of jobs and safe affordable housing would appear be an effective solution. The same for rehabilitating a poorly lit roadway with crumbling sidewalks. Economic development and investment in the infrastructure of low-income communities is an effective method for addressing crime driven by financial need.
It is also an overused method that fails to address the aspects of poverty that cannot be solved by jobs and housing alone.
The current approach, undertaken by CIHA and the Anchorage Assembly, is one-sided and only targets a narrow demographic — namely the 18 to 30-plus crowd with disposable income who frequent the trendy coffee shops, athletic clubs, and boutiques lining the northern corridor of Spenard.
Financially secure middle-class suburbanites are not synonymous with low-income urbanites living in an economically depressed area. The recent decision of the Anchorage Assembly to employ eminent domain, coupled with the purchase of multiple lots by CIHA, causes the entire project to come across as an underhanded attempt at gentrification.
This process may be hindered by the recent revelation that REI and Title Wave, two anchor businesses operating in the busy Northern Lights Center strip mall, are seeking to relocate due to rising rent. This would cause a dramatic shift in demographics as foot traffic would naturally relocate along with REI and Title Wave.
It would also undercut the progress made in the last several years to rehabilitate Spenard and eliminate the remains of its colorful past. The statewide budget shortfall means the Municipality of Anchorage cannot afford the added long-term expense of moving the issues affecting Spenard to some other dark corner of the city.
It would better serve the municipality if monies were spent researching long-term, sustainable, cost-effective solutions developed in conjunction with Spenard residents.
Individuals and families who are low-income typically know what their unmet needs are and the opportunities they need to access the necessary resources. If the City of Anchorage wants to properly address the issues affecting the community of Spenard, throwing money at the problem — or trendy coffee shops and bike lanes — is not alone a solution and probably shouldn’t be exercised as the first option.