By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
An 11-acre piece of prime real estate along Seward Highway in town that the U.S. Air Force has leased from the City of Seward to run a military family recreation camp out of for the past few decades will soon be returning to the city. The wooden buildings are being sold off one by one, and the remaining ones and all infrastructure will be removed, and the lease returned to the city by October, according to officials at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson or JBEAR.
On Monday night, April 21 the City Council hosted a lively work session kicking off what is expected to be a lengthy public discussion about what to do with that valuable property, and also with a smaller city-owned parcel of 2.3 acres known as the “Electric Pole Yard” at 11555 Seward Highway, a couple of miles outside city limits between City Express and Matt Hall’s veterinary business, where Seward Electric has been storing its power poles.
With a general scarcity of land in Seward available to develop that is not in the flood plain, or near the waterfront earthquake/ tsunami inundation zones, this flat, vacant 11-acre, somewhat polygon-shaped parcel of land along the Seward Highway will probably be quite involved. To get a feel for its size, the Safeway lot nearby is only 2 ¾ acres, while Seward Elementary School’s property, including forested areas, totals 17 acres.
Potential uses suggested Monday for the Air Force Rec site include a new community recreation center, new animal shelter, residential housing, a bowling alley/movie theater/restaurant complex. City Council member Christy Terry suggested the city explore the idea of high-density private development. But the idea that took top billing in the discussion was citing the Seward Public Works Department’s “City Shop” there, along with a new protected parking spot for city vehicles.
For three decades Seward city councils have proposed moving the Public Work’s Department shop, and all of its heavy industrial trucks and equipment, out of its downtown Seward location on Sixth Avenue, across from the Seward Post Office, which has scenic bay views, and could be developed for residential housing, which is sorely lacking. Most at the work session seemed to agree that the former Air Force rec site would be ideal for the city shop, situated next to the Fort Raymond generation station and now the new electrical warehouse. City officials also have long expressed the need to protect its “motor pool” vehicle infrastructure by locating their heavy-industrial trucks indoors, away from the destructive winter elements. Currently, the city shop is not large enough to house those vehicles, and they experience considerable wear and tear.
Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson proposed that the northern/western portion of the 11-acres could be kept in city hands and used for city facilities, while the portion to the south and east along Diamond and Seward Highway could be sold, to be developed by private enterprise. Mica Van Buskirk, a local resident, agreed.
What was debated most in that regard however, was the size footprint that a future city shop should have. Seward businessman Tom Tougas agreed that the site would be a logical spot to house the city shop, but also suggested that its footprint could be a lot smaller than it currently is. The city should contract out the services that the Public Works Department performs such as welding, painting, auto repair and snow removal to private enterprise, thus helping to grow the town’s private sector businesses and create year-round employment, he said. Requirements for the welding and painting that Public Works does are becoming highly regulated by federal agencies such as OSHA, so the city has already begun subcontracting more of these jobs out already, city officials said. Someone then pointed out the lack of availability of such services in the private sector, and the danger of the city letting them go to the free market. Resident Lee Poleske argued that Anchorage, which contracts out much of its snow removal services to a variety of private companies, does a very poor job of clearing snow and ice compared to the City of Seward employees.
Participants also discussed concern over the potential for increased traffic along Sea Lion Avenue, which leads to the elementary, middle and high schools. Construction of the new electric warehouse, directly across from the elementary school entrance, already promises an increase in large trucks in an area where young children are.
The former entrance to the Rec Camp property, the lower part of Diamond, which angles sharply to the right off of Seward Highway, was forever closed off by the Alaska Department of Transportation for safety reasons. It forces vehicular traffic to travel along Sea Lion, and streets to the rear of the property. Some suggested that another access road could be built off Aspen, the driveway leading to the City Cemetery, Parks and Recreation storage building, and Seward Chamber of Commerce.
POLE YARD: Meanwhile, the majority of electric department equipment stored at the pole yard, on a 2 ¾ acre city lot outside of town has been moved and will be housed in the new electric department warehouse. Electric Department officials said the location would be an ideal place to one day build and locate a new substation, and that doing so would be less expensive than building a completely new transmission line running to Seward Municipal Industrial Complex, (SMIC) that would be specifically designed for 69kW power.
Dr. John French voiced concern over whether 69kW of power would be adequate to supply the needs of SMIC once it is developed by industry, saying boatyards and seafood processing plants are big power-users and would need all the power they can get.
Electric Department Director John Foutz admitted there were other sites even closer to SMIC that could become available, such as a portion of the Bardarson’s property at Nash Road property and Seward Highway, or even Eadsville, although its flooding issues would not make that a great location for an electric substation.
The city has acquired far more land than it has sold, and should sell off its existing parcels as it acquires more, Tougas said. Should developers come to the city with reasonable plans for the purchase and use of vacant city land, they would be willingly considered, City Planner Donna Glenz told SCN later. Unfortunately, she added, such offers have been rare. Meanwhile, the passive act of maintaining undeveloped city land within the historic flood plain, or along the tsunami inundation zone Seward waterfront, actually improves the city’s insurance credit rating, thus creating additional savings for all residents, she said.
The council nevertheless sent Glenz back to create some maps and lists of unused city lots that could be sold and developed, and an overlay footprint of the city shop and related city needs, to be discussed further at future public work sessions.