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Speculation on Downtown Fairbanks Betterment

As you may have guessed, if you read this blog here and there, I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s the last northern stop before you really start heading out to the boonies of Alaska. One problem that Fairbanks has been trying to deal with for a long time is the “downtown area”. We have a new-ish district courthouse that was built in 2001 that is situated along the Chena River (which runs through the city). There’s a nice outdoor area right next to and around the courthouse with statuary, a fountain, seating, a footbridge, a city clock tower (it’s not very tall), and plenty of vagrants that tend to harass locals and tourists alike. There are a few hotels downtown, a number of restaurants and cafes, a handful of tourist shops, a popular local outdoors store called Big Ray’s, and banks. This should give you a general idea of the downtown area. Here is the problem: there is a lack of reason for locals to really venture downtown for longer than an hour (unless you’re called in for jury duty).

How do you turn a downtown from a place where no one really wants to venture for too long into a thriving downtown area?

Create Good Store Frontage Space

If you think about any downtown area, you probably imagine buildings with windows to showcase whatever they’re selling, right? One issue with downtown Fairbanks is that there is a severe lack of good store frontage space. Sure, you can rent office space above a few banks or in the Lathrop Building (which has no store frontage at all) or in the Nerland Building (no storefront, can flood in spring, and occasionally the door is kept locked unless by appointment with the offices inside). A lack of store frontage creates an unwelcoming space.

Left to Right: Polaris Building, Bachner Parking Lot, Nerland Building

I would use the borough’s income from the marijuana tax to demo the Polaris Building. It sits at Lacey and 1st Ave, right across from the courthouse. I would have a building built with retail/restaurant only on the ground level, office space on the two levels above that, and a rooftop restaurant. Why? Well the district attorney’s office has to be within a certain distance of the courthouse and what is better than right across the street? They could be locked in easily for a 10 year lease. The retail and restaurant only on the ground level would be for the people. Locals need a good reason to go downtown. Let’s provide some good retail space that’s right across the street (2nd Ave) from the parking garage! The rooftop restaurant would definitely be a new highlight for Fairbanks, especially with designated viewing areas and a rooftop patio area. This would create a new “destination”.

There is another location, currently a dirt parking lot, that could be built up for store frontage and parking. The parking lot between 4th Ave, 5th Ave, and Cushman St is currently owned by Bachner Corporation (they have a LOT of properties around Fairbanks). If they built a 2-3 level parking garage above ground level retail space, they could double or triple the parking available at the location currently. They could have a whole parking level just for rented parking spaces - serving businesses and some of the housing in that area.

Naturally, as a nerd with a hobby for planning, creating conceptual ideas, and creating floor plans, I have some ideas drawn up for these two specific places.

Arts Institute

One school I considered going to after high school was The Art Institute of Seattle ( I think getting an Art Institute campus in Fairbanks, perhaps situated in the available space above McKinley Bank would really change things drastically. It could be a smaller campus, that would be fine. Personally, I would opt for these programs: marketing, film & production, interior design, visual design, and gaming technology. Now this doesn’t have to be the Arts Institute, but something equal to it would be something to consider.

Left to right: McKinley Bank and Alaska Motor Inn

Surprisingly, downtown Fairbanks has quite a bit of art going on. There are old and new murals, sculptures, and other public art. We have a small film department, a moderate theater department, and a fairly decent fine arts department at UAF. UAF is a science and technology school, so most of the money goes there rather than the arts and humanities. An arts institute in the downtown area would do a number of things:

  1. Provide a different dynamic of people in that area

  2. Create demand for local businesses downtown

  3. Create a steady, better influx of money in that area

  4. Create a need for better housing for students downtown

  5. Provide the community with new skilled people

Since this is purely speculation, I would suggest that this new school purchase the Alaska Motor Inn, demolish it, and create a student housing complex there. The Alaska Motor Inn is a known place for druggies to hideout at. I’ve watched people brandish weapons and stumble into the street. It’s a pit. A poop-smear in the area. It should be taken out and the property used for something better.

It might seem odd to suggest an art school in the downtown area, but there are great amenities in the area:

  • Main bus transit center (5th Ave/6th Ave/Cushman)

  • Post office

  • Co-Op Market (locally owned)

  • Restaurants/Cafes/Bars

  • Banks

  • Dance Studio, Yoga, Jazzercise (just across the river)

  • Potential performance or showcase spaces

  • City Hall + police and fire

  • Churches

  • Daily News-Miner (newspaper)

  • Radio and TV stations

  • Food trucks

  • Escape Room

It’s also not too far from the “box store” area. People can walk, bike, bus, or drive there. The UAF Community College Campus is actually downtown (6th Ave/7th Ave/Barnette), but it’s tucked out of the way and isn’t near much of anything, except the post office and some law offices.

Bring Me The Hipsters

Hipsters are known to bring in business and, in general, boost the local economy where they appear to flourish. We need to aim for bringing in the hipsters to make this happen. That means unique business spaces, art school, decent housing in the area, and a decrease of public threats. The majority of downtown public threats are caused by fights at The Spur (formerly Kodiak Jack’s), natives who are in town from the village (not the city natives), and the druggies who hole up in shitty places like the Alaska Motor Inn.

We are starting to lean towards a hipster-friendly downtown with places like Goldie’s, Venue, Bad Mother, Music Mart, McCafferty’s, and The Crepery. The issue is that there is still not enough reason for people to venture downtown regularly.

What would appeal to Alaskan hipsters? Let’s say that an art institute-like school was going to move in downtown, build co-ed student housing, the city demolishes the Polaris Building, and something resembling my replacement idea for that spot was to be put in place. What would you think would appeal to Alaskan hipsters?

  • Small bookstore

  • Boutique fitness

  • Microbrewery

  • Clothing/Retail shops

  • Clubs - comedy club, night club, dinner club…???

  • Quirky market space (Pike Place Market in Seattle comes to mind)

  • Public radio and television

Something else?

Well, thank you for reading this episode of “What’s Going On In My Brain?” If you would like to participate, please leave your questions and comments below. I would honestly like to hear other suggestions. If you think “it’s bullshit” or “wow, that’s a great idea”, please tell me why. Put a reason to your answer.

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