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Proposal for an RV resort at the former site of the Alaska Native Hospital is drawing support and criticism

May 16 – An idea to build an RV resort on the site of the former Alaska Native Medical Center on the eastern edge of downtown Anchorage is gaining support from neighborhood groups as a city economic development agency pushes it forward.

Neighborhood advocates say they are fed up with the homeless encampments that have occupied the site. Last summer an enormous and particularly dangerous species grew there: there was regular criminal activity and a number of deaths. The area is now fenced off and vacant, but several groups want the 15-hectare site improved.

But the idea also has its skeptics, including Anchorage Assembly Speaker Chris Constant. Concerns include that a facility that primarily serves summer tourists will not properly honor the former hospital site, where generations of Alaska Natives experienced some of life’s greatest moments.

The Anchorage Community Development Authority, a quasi-governmental municipal agency, is still in the early days of studying the concept. The land, at Third Avenue and Gambell Street overlooking Ship Creek, is owned by the borough’s Heritage Land Bank.

The development authority is calling the idea the “Denali View RV Resort.”

The agency envisions a phased development with 35 full-service RV sites to be built by next summer. According to conceptual drawings from the agency, the resort would be fully built by 2027 with approximately 100 full-service RV sites.

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A proposed RV park on the site of the old Native Hospital would be three years in the making. The idea will be discussed in 2024. (Provided by Anchorage Community Development Authority)

The plan also proposes the construction of a memorial honoring Alaska Native history. It calls for an amphitheater, pickleball courts, a playground, bathrooms and green spaces. Trails would connect Ship Creek to Chester Creek to the south, supporting a Greenway trail loop in Anchorage’s urban core, a goal of the nearby Fairview neighborhood.

The Downtown and Fairview community councils have passed resolutions supporting the idea, said Melinda Gant, director of external affairs for the development agency. That includes the 3rd Avenue Radicals, a local neighborhood group.

Gant said the development authority is currently managing the property and keeping it free of people and waste, under a six-month land use permit with the land bank.

Mike Robbins, executive director of the development authority, said the RV resort would be a temporary use of the site, although some facilities would be permanent, such as the Alaska Native Memorial. The resort could last perhaps 10 to 15 years, as the authority leases the land from the Heritage Land Bank, if the land bank approves the idea.

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[Major Anchorage projects would change how the Seward and Glenn highways connect. But a smaller idea has traction.]

For the RV resort plan to move forward, the development agency’s board of directors would have to approve it, and ultimately the Anchorage Assembly.

Robbins said the initiative was driven by community groups.

It could help bring economic activity to the area, he said. The plans also call for some permanent commercial services at the site, including a laundromat, a small grocery store and a coffee shop, Gant said.

“We think this is really a transformational project for that part of the city,” Robbins said. “It uses a huge area of ​​land that has not been used for years. It is a beautiful place with views of the mountains and the water, so there is a lot of good potential.”

Building housing with some commercial development on the former hospital site was a big part of a 2019 Heritage Land Bank master plan developed with community input. But construction challenges at the site include an increased risk of ground failure during earthquakes, which would impose costs that have prevented development, Robbins said.

“The money that was supposed to be put into it made it something that no one was willing to take on,” he said.

He said the authority has hired Agnew Beck Consulting to prepare a financial plan and analyze costs. An RV resort would be “much, much cheaper” than building homes, he said.

An early estimate so far puts the cost of the resort between $4 million and $7 million, Robbins said. A private developer would pay for the project and a private operator could manage it, he said.

“We will not use taxpayer money to build an RV resort,” he said. “We are not going to the General Assembly to finance the construction of the RV resort.”

Gant said a next step for the plan will be engaging with the Alaska Native community about discussions about the monument.

Tensions in the community

The former Alaska Native Hospital closed in 1997 after more than forty years in operation, and the site was later cleared.

A multi-day closing ceremony included the reading of the names of each person who died there, and an all-night prayer vigil.

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It was replaced by the Alaska Native Medical Center, built along Tudor Road.

Over the years, the grassy property has often been the site of homeless encampments.

Local residents and workers, concerned about crime and threats to public health, protested the camps in 2020 and called for their closure.

During the pandemic, homeless activity there declined when the city opened a mass shelter at Sullivan Arena as an emergency measure.

But last summer, large numbers of homeless campers returned after the Sullivan Arena shelter was demobilized.

[As homeless camps take root near downtown Anchorage, neighbors say years of progress have been erased in days]

‘A slap in the face’

Meda DeWitt, an Alaskan traditional healer and board member of a nonprofit called Alaskans Take a Stand, said the RV park proposal, as she called it, is insulting to Alaska’s indigenous people.

[Earlier coverage: Housing, shops and memorial envisioned for former site of Alaska Native hospital]

“That land is considered holy land because there have been so many births and deaths, healings and prayers,” she said.

She said the proposal is similar to building an RV park at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

The late traditional healer Rita Blumenstein, who for years advised city leaders on how to use the space, said any development there should benefit Alaskans, especially Alaska Natives, DeWitt said.

One focus should be on providing housing in the location that people can afford, to address the city’s housing shortage, she said.

“It’s just an absolute shame to build an RV park there,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Assembly Speaker Constant, who has long pushed for redevelopment, said he thinks it’s great that there’s a new focus on improving the area.

But he said he is skeptical of the proposed RV resort for several reasons.

Because the costs are so high, it doesn’t make economic sense, said Constant, who represents downtown and other areas in North Anchorage County.

“They need to give us a plan that is credible, that is credible, that has a funding source that is achievable,” he said of the authority.

He said the plan does not meet the purpose of the 2019 master plan because it does not provide “neighborhood support” functions such as housing and a restaurant. Those facilities could be supported, perhaps with funding from federal water and sewer grants, allowing for housing and other construction, he said.

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He also is concerned that the proposed RV resort would take away from the land’s historic and cultural value to primarily serve summer tourists, he said.

A plea for ‘reasonable use’ of the land

Rob Cupples, a member of the 3rd Avenue Radicals who lives near the parcel and owns rental homes there, said the neighborhood group helped lead the efforts that culminated in the creation of the master plan.

The RV resort proposal includes some ideas from the master plan, including the amphitheater and the Alaska Native Memorial, he said.

But time has shown that residential development on the site would not be economically feasible, in part because of concerns about seismic activity, he said. During the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, part of a parking lot at the former hospital was damaged and the building’s steel main support beam cracked.

A market study released in mid-2021 found that developers had determined that building housing and other mixed-use projects on the site would require huge incentives such as property tax breaks, he said.

“The original vision was for a fair amount of housing, and that’s what we need,” Cupples said. “But the reality is that because of the high seismic zones and the instability of the ground for those types of structures, it’s just extremely expensive to develop that area for that type of use.”

“It can be done, but no developers have been interested in taking on that project because it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “So here we are five, six years later, and we’re nowhere near moving on the master plan.”

He said last summer’s homeless camp was a “disaster for the community.” He personally suffered from multiple property encroachments, broken windows, destroyed fences and other damage, he said.

He said the RV resort plan could take advantage of tourism opportunities.

“An entire tourism market is bypassing Anchorage because we don’t have any nice places nearby for RVs other than the Walmart parking lot,” he said.

“We shouldn’t get hung up on the details of the master plan because we could wait decades and that will never happen,” he said. “It’s time to go back to the drawing board and find reasonable uses that meet the neighborhood’s purpose.”

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