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Eagle River's hart of downtown: redeveloping retail, rezoning height.


While other Alaska communities struggle with everything from divided local politics, to far-reaching social issues and shrinking budgets, the Chugiak-Eagle River area's needs are fairly modest and the wish list attainable. It would ask for enough money to: build a community center that accommodates 300, expand the Olympic-size McDonald Center ice arena, and push for a little extra economic development in Birchwood, an adjacent burg, so there would be more quality jobs that can support a family.


For the most part, though, this bedroom community of Anchorage is simply happy to have an emerging downtown center that offers the mix of activities, essential services and variety of retail that appeals to the locals. "As recently as the mid-'90s, you still had to travel to Anchorage get a pair of underpants for your kid," Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce Director Susan Gorski says, noting the arrival of big box stores along with evidence of thriving small retailers.

With about 23,000 residents in Eagle River and another 8,000 in the adjacent settlements northwest of Eagle River--Chugiak, Birchwood, Peters Creek, Thunderbird Falls and Eklutna--the surrounding communities along the Glenn Highway, including personnel from Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base, live in Eagle River. Although many locals drive into Anchorage for work, more and more they are able to drive down the street for everything else, as Eagle River develops as the retail hub between Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla, and celebrates the dramatic rise in shopping, dining and the availability of medical and dental services.


Developing the new Town Center and public library is the next step toward increasing its "heart of downtown" appeal, Gorski says. The idea for the public-private partnership came to life after the 100,000 square-foot Valley River Center--previously the anchor mall for the community--sat empty for seven years after Safeway and Pay Less both moved out, leaving 80 percent of the mall dark. The core area of Eagle River had been linked by this "broken mall" and the Eagle River Mall, so when businesses pulled out the community lost its connectivity, John Rodda, lifelong Eagle River resident and director for Chugiak-Eagle River Parks, Recreation and Community Development says.

Although the chamber and the community agreed that using the vacant space made perfect sense and would pump new energy into the central business district, it was not until the Municipality of Anchorage and the Alaska Club--with the only remaining square footage--partnered that the project came to fruition, and the public-private partnership bought and renovated the building. The purchase price was $1 million, renovations were $4.2 million and another $2.2 was spent on roof repairs, bringing the total investment to about $10 million when taking into account the actual value of the discounted real estate. "It didn't take a leap of faith to put the two together," Gorski says, adding that though most wouldn't see the MOA and the athletic club as "bed fellows" the arrangement has been effective for all parties.


The MOA took possession of the real estate in June and the Alaska Club will move in this fall. The 10-acre town center will also include the new library an auxiliary police station, a transit center, professional offices, and parking. There is a park across the street and a 34,000 square-feet second building that is adjacent to the new center. When the Alaska Club vacates its old location, there will also be an additional 12,000 square feet that will be marketed to private sector buyers and there are already a number of parties who are interested.


With the highest per-capita readership of any library in the MOA, expanding and improving the Chugiak-Eagle River Branch Library has been a top priority of the community's for years, Gorski says. As a significant draw to the new Town Center, the 19,000 square-foot library--50 percent larger than the old one--offers expanded book and media collections, enhanced computer technology, separate areas for children and teens, group study rooms, a large reading area for all ages, and a community meeting room with a capacity of 260. Although the community is still discussing the name of the library, Gorski says that since the grand opening in August the facility has been the buzz of the community.


The Eagle River Overlay District Ordinance is another project that bubbled up from the community with the chamber's support. Unanimously passed by the Assembly in July, it is also geared toward shaping the future of downtown. The overlay establishes business friendly zoning guidelines that will result in attractive buildings, while also promoting the continued commercial use and development of the business district in the downtown area in keeping with the central businesses district revitalization plan. Historically, Gorski says, the zone has had almost no restrictions in downtown, which led to a dialogue about what tools were available to the community that are consistent with economic viability and sustainability.

Land Design North, the consulting firm hired to solicit community input, said locals wanted to put limitations on building heights and did not want commercial and residential property design standards that resulted in cookie-cutter buildings. The ordinance created two zones: one allows buildings up to 45 feet tall (three stories) and another allows 65-foot buildings (four stories). Although the ordinance is not likely to change land use for properties in the near future, it does prevent a high rise from being built in the future.

"It means that if a developer is putting up a new building, the ordinance offers guidelines and options for beautification that are enforceable, but we're not hog tying them into expensive improvements, and it's grandfathered in," Gorski says. "It overlays existing zoning and adds additional justifications according to standards in old downtown."


Although there is no end to the list of transportation projects she'd like to see her area qualify for, with the recent change in the mayoral administration and $18 million in 2010 budget cuts pending, until later this fall even dreaming is pointless, she says. In the meantime, the community is benefiting from several projects that have recently been completed, including the Eagle River Loop Road, which includes re-doing the two-mile stretch from Eagle River Road and the Glenn Highway, replete with landscaping, new lights, bike trails and sidewalks. Since completion of the Old Glenn Highway upgrades, the next related phase of improvements will be the continuation of this road from six miles north of the Eagle River interchange, including reconstructing and renovating the Old Glenn to South Birchwood, then north to the Birchwood ski road, opening access to Fire Lake, Chugiak High School and the Senior Center.
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Comment:Eagle River's hart of downtown: redeveloping retail, rezoning height.(TOWNS IN TRANSITION)
Author:Bohi, Heidi
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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