Look to the past and envision the future.
The year is 2025: We’re standing in the middle of a large surface parking lot downtown at 6th Avenue and D Street. Most days, the lot is about a third full – It may not look like it but, this is actually a popular place to park. People find it more convenient than using the parking garage on 5th Avenue or parking on the street. This parking lot is referred to as the Nordstrom Site – The Nordstrom Department Store was demolished several years ago.
Sound familiar? This scenario has played out in cities across the country for decades – A bad penny strategy for downtown revitalization with good intentions and disastrous results.
October 24th, 1998. A crowd gathers downtown to witness history, the largest building ever to be demolished by means of controlled demolition – The iconic J.L Hudson Department Store. Detroit had already been suffering through a dramatic economic downturn for over a decade, and the massive, abandoned department store was not only an eyesore but an overshadowing symbol of decline. The administration of Mayor Dennis Archer spent $12M to reduce the 2.2M SF, structurally sound building to a 60ft high pile of rubble and left a gaping hole in the middle of the downtown. Several years later, in an effort to entice developers, the city spent another $39M to prep the lot for new development. They constructed new architectural footings and built an underground parking garage on the site, which sat vacant for twenty years.
Detroit’s renaissance spared many of downtown’s long-vacant, historic buildings, and Hudson’s would have been one of them. When Bedrock Construction broke ground on a new 1M SF building on the Hudson’s site in December 2017, the $39M publicly funded footings and parking garage were demolished. Bedrock’s renderings of their glitzy glass building promise an end to the emptiness and a new modern look for the block. However, work has slowed, the estimated size of the new building has been reduced, and as of December 2020, the project is only now (technically) above ground. With incentives, tax breaks, and the fact that the city gave the land to the developer for free, the public will have invested around $200M in this project. If completed as planned, Detroit will finally have a new building in the place of a perfectly good building they chose to demolish.
When there’s not enough demand to rebuild
Goldblatt’s Department store in downtown Hammond, Indiana, was the anchor tenant of downtown. The massive 1920’s building at Hohman Avenue and Sibley street was the inspiration for the store in the film A Christmas Story. The store closed in 1982, and the city decided to implode the building in 1993. It was actually so well built that the implosion failed, and much of the building was still standing afterward. After the debris was cleared, it became a surface parking lot and remains an (empty) parking lot today. Hammond wasn’t as fortunate as Detroit in terms of downtown revival, there aren’t any cranes on the skyline, but some of the old buildings have been fixed up, and it’s a good possibility that such a well-built and attractive Chicago School building would have been adapted for reuse.
In October 2020, the Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA) announced its plans to acquire two properties at 6th Avenue and D Street, the JC Penney parking garage and the former Nordstrom Department Store.
“These historic acquisitions will provide the opportunity to redevelop two iconic city blocks in the heart of downtown and set the table for the next fifty years of growth,” said Andrew Halcro, Executive Director of ACDA. “While downtown has endured an ongoing recession for the last five years due to the drop in oil prices, state budget cuts and a pandemic, these acquisitions will give ACDA valuable development pieces to re-shape downtown once the local economy recovers in the next three years.”
I don’t object to the purchase of these properties, but I am leery of “demolish it, and they will come” strategies for downtown regrowth as well as public-private partnerships. We like to think of Anchorage as an exceptional place – unlike other cities, but we should look beyond our bubble and give credence to other cities’ tribulations and avoid making the same mistakes.
The press release states that ACDA expects to close on the two properties by year-end with a $5.2M cash purchase. ACDA intends to demolish the parking garage and, most likely, the Nordstrom Building, too, in hopes of enticing developers with raw land and a public-private partnership (incentives) to build something which they hope includes apartments.
I’ve opined on the fate of the Penney’s garage in a previous article in which I advocated keeping it only as long as it’s useful. I realize the Nordstrom building is anything but an architectural marvel, it’s just a big box, but it’s a useful box.
There’s a catch-22 for bringing more residents into downtown: We need services like grocers and pharmacies to attract residents, but we need more housing to attract the services. This is why I object to prematurely demolishing the Norstrom building; it’s a useful building connected to the mall by a very nice double-decker sky bridge. It would make a great location for a store like Target, which would ideally serve Government Hill, South Addition, and Fairview in addition to downtown if people lived there.
Retail has been in a downward spiral for over a decade, largely driven by e-commerce, which itself is a relatively new industry. With a pandemic thrown into the mix, we don’t know what the future of retail will look like, and we lack the empirical data to make permanent decisions. However, consider this: Years ago, planners ripped up railroads and streetcar lines across the US to make room for new highways because, after all, why would anyone want to take a train when you can drive your very own car? Ask anyone at the time, and they’d tell you that this is the way things will be from now on.
In closing, I suggest we not be hasty. It’s a smart move to obtain these properties and reserve the final say in what happens to them, but we shouldn’t rush to demolish a perfectly good building. If surface parking lots were a prime target for development, downtown Anchorage would be awash in new construction projects. Let’s not add another parking lot to the sea of parking lots in Downtown Anchorage.