New 4th Avenue destroys Anchorage’s history with downtown demolition

Peach Investments acquired the 4th Avenue theater in a 2009 foreclosure sale when Northrim Bank closed the bidding without bidding; Those of us who attended breathed a sigh of relief. Gu Fang then asked the bank if the bid could be reopened. The bank reopened the bid, which we thought was unethical. Canines bid low, about $790,000, and bids are closed.

Peach claimed that they “… invested heavily to maintain and repair the old structure.” I have asked the Acting Construction Officer for the Anchorage Building Department that any building permit requests for the purported work be sent to me via email. Based on what I’ve received, there have been two instances in the past 13 years where this has happened. Under the C16-2170 demolition permit, there was a boiler inspection by the municipality on May 26, 2017. According to the municipality, “there is no record of a boiler replacement permit.” Under the same permit, a state check was conducted on November 17, 2017. The municipality stated, “There are no inspection comments under the other two trial permits C18-2375 and C22-1003.”

In an article for ADN on December 2, 2017, “Zhu Fang, whose family owns Peach Investments, said at a December business meeting with the association that he wanted to “reassure everyone… we have no intention of demolishing the stage.” He said the company needed a permit to replace kettle, and said it would require demolishing some of the building’s interior.” The reason for the permit was the removal of the boiler, which apparently was not done. The theater’s previous owner, Robert Gotstein, confirmed that he had replaced the main boiler prior to certificate of occupancy in 1992 and the tandem boiler later. Since there are apparently no other permits applied for by Peach and the maximum amount one can complete maintenance for a commercial building is $5,000 without a permit, it is questionable whether the huge investment claimed and/or “… repairs Water intrusion, mechanical upgrades, new roof membrane…”. If they do, they seem to have completed without a permit.

[Anchorage residents mourn as demolition begins on historic 4th Avenue Theatre]

Referring to a state examination report issued on November 14, 2006, Peach claimed that “…the initial cost estimates for restoring the building were too expensive for the parties involved to afford.” Actual cost estimates from a “Rehabilitation Cost Analysis” dated November 13, 2006, by the municipality, indicated that the total budget for the entire theater restoration would be $6 million, with a potential $2 million for contingency totaling $8 million. This is a very reasonable amount and is not “expensive”.

The claim that the basement encroaches on Fourth Avenue is true, just below the sidewalk, but the theater has “grandfather rights” – it’s been 75 years old – and waivers for the historic building should allow it.

[EDITORIAL: When it comes to historical preservation, what do we value?]

Peach’s claim that they “… explored several ‘adapt and reuse’ methods… …” seems to make one wonder. I was the historic preservation team leader for the “4th Avenue Theater Professional Capital Improvement Scheme” in 2006 for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and the municipality. Why did Peach ignore the fact that we have decades of experience in our local team? I submitted to Zhou Fang a letter at the auction conducted by Northrim Bank displaying the expertise of our Historic Preservation team in theater restoration. We haven’t heard from anyone at Peach.

Our team had a plan to maintain/restore the theater as a multicultural and multi-art facility with an alley leave behind the theater to allow for backstage circulation, a green room for a theater and/or movie theater and basement a black box theatre, a Sidney Lawrence room on the second level as a dance studio, and offices for several Theater and Arts Companies in Anchorage, Connecting the PAC/Egan Convention Center to the Key Bank Theater with the Sky Bridge. The 4th Avenue Theater will be a venue for visitors and Alaskans during all seasons. As I mentioned on HGTV’s “Restore America with Bob Vila” at the Oscar Anderson House restoration in 2000, people don’t come to a place to see the shiny new buildings, they come to see the history of the place they’re visiting.

[A developer is again planning a major new construction project for a downtown Anchorage block. It includes demolition of the 4th Avenue Theatre.]

The claim that “Peach remains committed to making a vigorous effort to salvage and preserve parts of the hallway, mezzanine and murals’ distinctive interior features” must be substantiated. As far as I know, the two big walls haven’t been removed yet. It is doubtful whether it can be removed without destroying it, because Robert Gutstein said it was “a three-dimensional plaster with gold leaf attached to chicken wire (board?)”. Gotstein said he would be willing to donate the first $1,000 which he imagines would be no more than $10,000 to remove it as long as it is for public use.

Claims of mitigation of hazardous materials are questionable. Gottstein stated that he removed all hazardous materials, such as asbestos, except for some areas of the air ducts not accessible to the public. The municipality granted a certificate of occupancy again in May 1992 and would not have granted it unless the building was safe to inhabit. Any remaining asbestos is limited and can easily be either diluted or encapsulated. Any issues in the code can either be resolved or waived, since this is a historic building on the National Register of Historic Places and the IEBC addresses these issues directly. The 2006 Condition Inspection Report did not address lead paint, but any trace found can be mitigated by containment and does not need to be removed since this is a commercial building and no one occupies the theater. Peach and the mayor’s fight over hazardous materials is not justified as a reason to demolish the building nor does it sound right.

Peach claims to have documented the entire building to the standards of the American Historic Building Survey and “to date, most of this information has been collected.” I and many others would like to see evidence of these documents. I have a copy of the “4th Avenue Theater Historic Building Report” written by a local company in the late 80’s and it has a wealth of information on the theater. Peach claimed for 13 years that they wouldn’t demolish the building and now they do. This demolition will destroy the historic center of Anchorage, and no amount of facade and/or fake signage will compensate for this destruction. Placing a fake image as a front and historical reference is an insult to the people of Anchorage and Alaska and a slap in the face for what used to be. I have always believed in honesty in restoring structures, which is dishonest. I, along with many others, prefer it not to be put into the heart of what appears to be a strange insect about to consume the IV.

Peaches have allowed the stage to decline over the past 13 years. Their unresponsiveness to viable offers from Alaskans to purchase the theater to restore it, the inability of anyone to view the interior of the theater and their now savior’s promise not to demolish the theater, has led to a mistrust of our community.

Contact the Anchorage Society today to encourage them to halt demolition until there is actual building permit for the new building. Otherwise, who knows how long there will be a void where the beautiful Historic 4th Avenue Theater used to be, and we will lose our historic center.

Samuel Duff Coombs, AIA, NCARBArchitect of Historic Preservation. Lives in Anchorage.

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