Anchorage plans new downtown library in historic City Hall

Mar. 9—It's been 35 years since downtown Anchorage has had a public library in the neighborhood. But thanks to a growing endowment from longtime Anchorage resident Janet Goetz, who died in 2010, and a recent $2.5 million state grant, the city is moving forward with plans to set up a new library location in Anchorage's historic City Hall on Fourth Avenue.

Mayor Dave Bronson announced the chosen location during a news conference last week.

"The restoration of old City Hall and the creation of the downtown library will not only preserve our historic roots, but will also provide a hub for learning, culture (and) community activity for locals and visitors to enjoy for many years to come," Bronson said.

Residents can expect an Alaska-centric library with a focus on digital media and an open footprint, and a completion goal of 2026, the mayor's office said.

"It's wonderful," said Democratic state Rep. Zack Fields, whose district includes downtown and who helped get the state grant through the Legislature for the project.

"We should have a library in downtown Anchorage that families can walk and bike to, or take transit," he said.

However, there are still some important steps remaining before the Anchorage Library Foundation and city can move forward with the project, according to the foundation's executive director, Shanna Allen.

Allen said some concerns about the building remain, such as whether it can withstand holding heavy book shelving — and said that it's not yet 100% certain a downtown library branch will end up in old City Hall.

The foundation needs an engineer to determine not only what the 88-year-old building can handle, but also the cost to bring it up to code for what the library needs, Allen said. The foundation will "decide from there, based on the amount of the grant, if that is something that we can move forward with," she said.

"Having a downtown library is definitely a sure thing. I think until we can confirm that the space is acceptable ... that is the holdup at the current moment," Allen said.

During past efforts to carry out Goetz's wishes, an engineering study on the Old Federal Building on West Fourth Avenue revealed the building wasn't suitable.

An Anchorage Public Library spokeswoman referred questions about the project to the mayor's office.

The mayor's office said that the foundation is currently reviewing the terms of the pass-though grant agreement from the state, which will fund renovations. After that, the city will identify how to renovate old City Hall, the mayor's office said in an email.

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Downtown branch is a long time coming

In 1986, the city shuttered its longtime former Loussac Library in downtown, where the Egan Convention Center now stands, and moved the main branch to its current Midtown location, according to a history of the library.

For decades, Goetz had been a patron of the downtown library. She had regularly walked the few blocks from her home to visit it, and was dismayed at the loss of her beloved neighborhood library, according to previous Daily News reports.

Downtown continued to have a smaller branch on Sixth Avenue until 1988, when the city closed the branch along with three others during an economic recession.

When Goetz died in 2010, she left her estate in a trust fund for the Anchorage Library Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the public library, to establish a new downtown library branch.

That trust has since grown to a total of around $12.5 million, according to the mayor's office.

The city has had a downtown library project in its sights for years, stretching back several mayoral administrations. Goetz was determined to see a new one established, and began pushing for the project long before her death. She first anonymously donated $100,000 to the library foundation for the cause in 2001. She donated another $500,000 in 2005.

In 2018, under former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, the city developed a business plan and identified numerous possible locations for a downtown library, including old City Hall.

But plans stalled, because the city didn't yet have enough money to both sustain operations of a new library and renovate or build a location.

That changed when the Anchorage Library Foundation secured a $2.5 million grant via the state, using federal pandemic relief dollars. The library foundation has been raising money for the project for years.

The grant will pay for renovations of old City Hall and outfitting it into a library of at least 2,000 square feet, while annual proceeds from the trust will pay for staff and other operating costs, Bronson said during the press conference.

The grant for renovations has to be spent by the end of 2026, Allen said.

Finding the right space for a library downtown has been complicated. Some want to see a full-fledged branch with stacks of books. Others, like Fields, would be satisfied with a scaled-back version, like what old City Hall could become.

"Everybody wants a downtown library. Everybody thinks that'd be a great idea. The problem is having a functional space," Allen said of old City Hall.

Excitement and skepticism

The historic City Hall was built in 1936, and the public library once operated in a space on its top floor. The building was also home to the mayor's office, city council chambers, the police chief's office, firefighters and three jail cells.

Just next to the building is Peratrovich Park, where $700,000 from a recent city Parks and Recreation bond is funding improvements. It is also near Town Square Park, where events are frequently held.

The parks, plus the surrounding tourism district, make the location ideal, Rep. Fields said.

"You just have this perfect synergy with visitors and local families. And I think it makes sense to have kind of a satellite library that serves both local families — kids specifically — and has some kind of Alaska-specific contents that would be of particular interest to tourists," Fields said.

Downtown has long needed a library for Anchorage families, he said. With the a push to revitalize downtown and developments underway, there's a growing need for the public amenities a library would offer, Fields said.

"Obviously, historic buildings are hard to work with. But, honestly, that one — it's beautiful. It's one of the more attractive buildings in Anchorage," Fields said. "When you think about having a kids' room and space for books about Alaska history that would be of interest to visitors, it totally makes sense. And you just have to work within the constraints of the building."

Anchorage Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who represents downtown as part of the North Anchorage district, has also long wanted to see a library branch reestablished in downtown.

But Constant said he was surprised by the mayor's announcement, and during a meeting Tuesday asked the administration for official plans and "formal communication to the Assembly."

He also said he found it odd that the city's library leaders and the foundation did not participate in the mayor's announcement, and many questions remain about exactly what it will take to move the project forward.

"I have a measured support. I have heard mixed opinions from my district. But until I see a proposal — not just a press conference during a peak campaign season — I am going to maintain my skeptical approach," Constant said. "I have heard some people who say, 'What a great idea.' And I have heard others who've said, 'I don't know if it's gonna work there because the building is historic.'"