Officials in Anchorage are planning a major overhaul of the city’s downtown Transit Center. The early plan offers a preliminary vision of a revitalized downtown, but few specifics about what happens to many of the people there now.
The Anchorage Community Development Authority, which is in charge of the space, loses $485,000 a year just maintaining it. That’s way too much, considering what a dangerous place it is according ACDA’s Executive Director Andrew Halcro.
He and members of his staff did more than 60 interviews at the Transit Center to hear about its problems (in the process they learned that after English the most common languages spoken are Spanish and Yupik). They also pored over hundreds of hours of surveillance videos.
“You can see how quickly this escalates,” Halcro said, showing me one day’s worth of footage from November 7th, slowing down as two of the facility’s three security guards check on a woman slumped over on a bench. “Our security officers are trying to take care of the woman on the bench and now you’ve got a crowd gathering around. Meanwhile, who knows what’s going on on the other side of the facility?”
Handling people who are drunk, high, or passed out is a huge share of the security officers’ work, according to figures collected by ACDA. So far this year there have been 1,700 calls to the Community Service Patrol, and that figure doesn’t include trips where multiple people are picked up.
“Two weeks ago during that cold snap they had four in their office at once,” Halcro said, referring to the security staff.
But that is just one part of the illegality and crime suggested in the footage. Halcro points out a man in a yellow jacket who repeatedly disappears outside with people after quick verbal exchanges. He’s there all day, everyday an alleged drug dealer who is one of about four people Halcro said come every day for hours and hours. Security staff call the 33-year-old “The Father,” because he heads up a group of teens nicknamed the Downtown Family.
There are serious issues with human trafficking at the Transit Center, but like suspicions about drug dealing, the security guards on staff do not have full police powers to investigate. They cannot, for example, look inside a backpack or make arrests.
The facility is also outdated, built in 1985 under a very different philosophy about public space. Heating is expensive. Too many corners block sight-lines.
And, as Halcro points out, the bathrooms tucked away by the sides invite more trouble than janitors can keep up with.
“Some of the things happening in the bathroom,” Halcro started, “I can get as graphic as you want: People defecating on the floor, people throwing it against the wall, prostitution in the bathroom.”
“We have security briefings at this table every Monday morning,” Halcro continued, “and every Monday I leave those meetings and I think ‘my god, it can’t get any worse,’ and then the next week it gets worse.”
Halcro and his team heard during interviews that the problems dissuade ridership on city buses, which remains low. According to Census figures from 2014, just 2,932 or Anchorage’s 156,149 daily commuters use public transportation–less than two percent.
The problems are also a missed business opportunity in what Halcro believes is a prime location. The plan that premiered during Thursday’s ACDA board meeting calls for less public space within a design that moves riders along instead of allowing them to linger indoors. ACDA is also looking for an anchor tenant to re-mold the space around — one that can fill a hole they see in basic amenities available downtown.
“I think Walgreens is perfect,” Halcro said during an interview ahead of presenting the idea to the board.
At this point, everything is preliminary, including financing figures and timelines. But one thing that was not addressed in the design unveiling is what will happen to existing tenants, either the food vendors downstairs or the social service providers renting spaces on the second level.
“We’re aware of discussions ongoing, but we’re not involved in the planning,” said Jennifer Smerud, who directs communications for Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, which includes Alaska Youth Advocates, the organization in charge of the Power Teen Center on the second floor. Smerud said nobody from the organization had been approached by ACDA or the Administration about the redesign.
But she agrees the Transit Center is a rough space with a lot of tough issues. That, however, is exactly why they have a teen center there.
“Wherever you’re going to have low-income folks and vulnerable people congregating you’re going to have predators, and so the transit center has its share of unpleasant individuals,” Smerud said by phone. “We do what we can to make sure that the space we’re providing is safe.”
It’s an issue that keeps coming up: What to do with city residents who have nowhere else to go. Since taking office, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has announced similar redesign plans for nearby Town Square Park, also identified as a trouble-spot by the business community. Berkowitz sees both are pieces in a broader strategy to revitalize downtown.
“We do have a problem with homelessness in this community, we have a problem with public safety. Addressing the homelessness issue, addressing the public safety issue will help make the Transit Center a more attractive place for everybody to use,” Berkowitz said during an earlier interview. “Downtown should belong to all people who come through Anchorage, not just those who find refuge there because it’s cold.”
ACDA will take plans back up during its meeting in January.