The JC Penney parking garage: An interim transit center we can use.

Let’s put an under-utilized public building to work while we develop a better strategy.

As the Our Downtown group bears down on a distilled version of the 2007 comprehensive plan, we’re faced with some decisions on our transit center – what’s real and what’s fantasy?

The 2007 comprehensive plan included a series of “catalytic development sites” as the name suggests, they’d spur development nearby due to the increased activity at those sites. Number one on the list was a new transit center that would either replace or augment the 4th Avenue Marketplace / Sunshine Mall.

This plan shouldn’t be tossed out entirely; it seems to be a shoot-the-moon project out of our financial reach at present, but I like that it’s slightly further East, which would benefit a goal to infill the scores of vacant lots East of C Street. However, it may be too far north to be useful if there are no plans to connect with the rail station for intermodal functionality.

2007 Comprehensive Plan Diagram – Proposed transit center is Catalytic Site #1

Is this the new plan?

Last January, ACDA released their plans for an overhaul of the transit center parking garage, which appended some mixed-income housing, a large retail tenant, and a five-star hotel to the front of the structure. I fully support more housing downtown, and having transit and housing in one building would be awesome, but I admit, the five-star hotel part baffles me. As I understand it, the original developer has pulled out, and there is some debate on the viability of the project without the hotel component. So, unless we can come up with a plan that looks less like the development equivalent of a swiss army knife, I propose the following:

Welcome to the transit center formerly known as the JC Penney parking garage.

I’ve written about the Penney’s garage before, and believe me when I say: I don’t want that thing looming over downtown forever. When faced with the choice of spending millions of dollars to tear it down and look at an empty parking lot for the next decade or make a small investment to squeeze a few more years out of it until something better comes along, I’d choose the latter. There are several reasons to hold off on tearing it down:

  • It’s going to be expensive.
  • Nobody is eager to build there right now.
  • The building is still useful.

I’m not suggesting a multi-million dollar overhaul of this structure; I’m advocating for modest safety and aesthetic improvements to increase usage, reactivate the space, and rebuild the area’s value by moving the transit center into the old JC Penney Home Store space. Painting the garage a more modern color like dark gray, improving lighting, and some street-level signage would make a big impact. Other Considerations include:

Airport Parking

Now that we’ve successfully removed the barriers that prevented the People Mover from providing service to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, we should explore an airport park & ride service here as an alternative to the often hard-to-find on-site public parking and off-site private airport parking. Benefits include the economic impact to downtown for pre-flight food and drink as well as souvenir and gift purchases for local travelers heading off to visit friends and family in the lower-48. This could be an excellent way to recoup the rehab costs, squeeze another decade of revenue out of this structure, and get more riders acquainted and comfortable using the People Mover.

Bicycle Parking

A small section of the garage should be dedicated to secure bicycle parking to encourage more cyclists to ride downtown and not just for work but events and an evening on the town. A significant barrier that I’ve personally experienced is the lack of a safe and secure place to park my bike.

Someday, I hope Anchorage can have a true intermodal transit facility that links commuter rail service with buses and a significant reduction in parking demand. However, we have acres of surface parking lots to contend with and a population of steadfast motorists – Holding on to this garage for just a few more years might be in our best interest.