By SUZANNE DOWNING
“Hasty endings always leave things unsaid,” according to Andrew Halcro, who went on in his guest column in the Anchorage Daily News to express his appreciation for his former boss, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
Berkowitz himself had a hasty and embarrassing ending in city government, far weirder than the abrupt departure of Halcro, the former head of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, whose goal was to turn downtown into a residential area, and forsake it as a business center.
“Hard work goes unrecognized. Credit goes unclaimed. Thanks and appreciation are not expressed. This is my opportunity to pay that marker,” Halcro wrote, as he launched into an explanation of his crowning achievement – the boarding up of the downtown Anchorage transit center.
Like so much of downtown Anchorage, the transit center was a hazard to those who dared.
Halcro wrote about how it was such a wonderful project when it opened as a welcoming gathering place in the 1980s. But over the past few years, “society changed, the building did not.”
Society changed, all right. In the last six years, under the wandering eye of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Anchorage had deteriorated, and is now hardly recognizable to those who return after years away. Gone are the flower beds, gone are hipster and gift shops downtown. Stores are boarded up, and Halcro viewed the transit center “downtown’s biggest threat to public health and safety.”
During Berkowitz’ five and a half years as mayor, the transit center, which is right next to City Hall, became so unsafe that he simply closed it. Consider that for a moment: A building right next to City Hall could not be made safe.
Just what in society changed? Under Berkowitz-Halcro, downtown was a nightmare: Nordstrom left, the streets were roamed by thugs, and by the time the pandemic hit, there wasn’t enough resiliency to hope for a turnaround anytime soon.
“However, one the biggest untold success stories of my past five years hasn’t been what we’ve added, but what we’ve subtracted — while proper credit has never been given,” Halcro wrote in the Anchorage Daily News.
“So, after years reading the horror stories about drug dealing, sex trafficking and violence in the center and my own experience of crossing the street to avoid this building, I spent the first 75 days on the job stationed in the transit center. My team and I would spend hours every day trying to understand the flow of the building, interviewing the people, trying to study the demographics and the tenants. When we weren’t inside the facility, we were studying security footage to identify bad actors and patterns of behavior. After 75 days, neither increased security nor reduced hours made a bit of difference.,” Halcro wrote.
Berkowitz-Halcro gave up, and shuttered the building.
“The center was the only warm public place, so it attracted people with no intent of taking the bus, some of whom were there with ill intent. At any given time, only one-third of the people in the building were there for legitimate purposes; the rest were a mixture of loiterers, public inebriates, drug dealers and sex traffickers. In one picture I took, there were 15 people in the frame, and only two were there to actually catch a bus — the rest were drunk and loitering. The tenants were barely surviving, and I was positive at least one of our tenants was a front for drugs. Many days, I would find there would be more first-responder vehicles at the center than buses. My cost of security and janitorial were approaching $1 million per year. The only solution was to shut and gut the building. Without hesitation, Mayor Berkowitz agreed.”
Halcro stated that he owes that crowning achievement to Mayor Berkowitz.
Readers of this news site will recall that Berkowitz, entangled in a bizarre text-sex relationship with a news anchor, was in charge during the worst crime wave in Anchorage history, and the general decline and fall of downtown, while the Mat-Su Valley flourished.
It’s remarkable that Halcro would dare to document this, his proudest moment.
In hindsight, Anchorage owes former news anchor Maria Athens a debt of gratitude for exposing and then ridding the city of the Berkowitz era by publishing a smidgen of the backside of Berkowitz, causing him to quickly resign in disgrace. At least give the gal a key to the city.
“I would like to personally recognize Ethan for the trust and confidence he placed in me over the past five years by giving me a long leash and always keeping his word. He deserves as much credit as anyone — not just for the transformation of the transit center, but for his role in supporting ACDA in all of our historic accomplishments over the last five years, and for that I say thank you,” Halcro wrote.
The transformation, in layman’s terms, means papered-over windows.
In fairness, the low-income housing development Elizabeth Place was another achievement for Halcro in his efforts to rebuild a downtown economy. And he installed a prison-yard basketball court on top of the Fifth Avenue Mall parking garage, which is forlorn most of the time. The food truck park he envisioned for downtown is unfulfilled. The closure of Nordstrom, of course, is an achievement that is unparalleled in the Berkowitz-Halcro tenure, and as of Sunday, the colorful panels boarding up the entry to the once-proud building were starting to come off in large sections; one was resting on the ground, unattended.
Overall, with so much to talk about, it’s a odd that Halcro would choose shutting down the transit center as his proudest moment. And to thank the mayor for helping him put mass transit riders out in the cold? With friends like that, Mayor Berkowitz, who needs frenemies?
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska and Must Read America.