East Anchorage residents weigh in on proposed school bus barn
People along Muldoon Road met Thursday night to discuss a proposal that could move the Anchorage School District’s bus barn to their neighborhood.
More than 20 people lined up behind a microphone at a Northeast Community Council meeting to give the municipality’s director of planning, Tim Potter, a piece of their mind. The laundry list of complaints included diesel fumes, noise, increased traffic, and a decrease in property values.
“My son was in tears the other night because he was like mom I don’t want to listen to a bus at 5 a.m. because it’s going to be 150 feet from my room spewing diesel into my bedroom window. That will put him in the hospital and he already has medical issues,” Heather Swanson told municipal planners.
Swanson told municipal representatives that she is beyond frustrated, and called the situation a fiasco. One of her biggest complaints was that she felt like the city was planning the bus barn move “under the cover of darkness.”
An ASD presentation on the plan, given during the Anchorage School Board’s Sept. 11 meeting, outlines a plan to move the bus barn from its current location on Elmore Road to city-owned land near the Totem Theater on Muldoon Road. Doing so would clear the original site for new construction, as part of planned developments announced in June.
“In addition to a new (municipal) Department of Health and Human Services building, the development plan is to build a large grocery store, apartment complex, a hotel, office buildings and additional buildings for retail,” district officials wrote.
Robin Ward, the municipality’s director of real estate development, emphasized that the project remains in very preliminary planning phases. The municipality is currently seeking to rezone the land near Totem Theater from its current residential designation, a required step before any detailed design or construction work.
“The neighborhood thinks this is a done deal; this is not,” Ward said. “There is no way we wouldn’t tell them about this -- we’re trying to remain transparent.”
State Rep. Lance Pruitt, an east Anchorage Republican, said that constituents started asking him about the project roughly three weeks ago when the Totem Theater site was mentioned at community council meetings. He said a mailing sent to affected residents mentioned only the Totem Theater site’s rezoning, not the construction of a new bus barn.
“We found out this has been essentially fast-tracked, with ground-breaking in April,” Pruitt said. “I got an email just yesterday from a guy asking, ‘Why am I just finding out about this now?’”
Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar says there’s no conspiracy theory. He says the municipality approved the new bus barn on the current site at Tudor and Elmore, but a problem arose about a month ago when the muni realized there wasn’t enough space.
Dunbar represents the east side and used to live in the Scenic Foothills neighborhood, which is right by the proposed new bus bar site. He says ahead of the meeting, there was a lot of misinformation on social media, which could have led to the emotional outbursts at the meeting and the accusations that the city is trying to get the deal done by sweeping it under the rug -- a view he said simply isn't true, with a lot in the city's development plan on the line.
“It’s $160 million (of) private investment in Anchorage," Dunbar said. "Getting rid of senior housing, no grocery store, no 200-unit condo, no new DHSS building? It’s a really big project but this neighborhood is bearing the brunt of it in terms of the bus barn.”
Ward said the process, which led district officials to the Totem Theater site, began about two months ago when they realized that it wasn’t possible to relocate the bus barn on-site as planned. The facility, which serves Bartlett and East high schools, among others, must be located near them in east Anchorage.
A search of city-owned land turned up one other potential site for the roughly eight-acre bus barn on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive near the state crime lab. Just over five acres of that site were available for development, however, and it only had one road entrance; the bus barn requires at least two, leaving the Totem Theater location as the single viable choice.
“That is the only municipally-owned site that came even close to being able to accommodate them,” Ward said.
Pruitt said the site north of Totem Theater, adjacent to area wetlands, was originally intended to house an elementary school-- not a bus barn. He said the project would leave buses starting up at 6 a.m., pumping their exhaust gases into a relatively cold area known for temperature inversions.
“At no point did we have the thought that they might put a 120-bus bus barn there,” Pruitt said.
Ward said city officials would address points raised by residents but said the buses will still be traveling through east Anchorage regardless of where they’re based.
“That’s all part of our job -- to mitigate these concerns-- but, these buses are already on the roads,” Ward said. “They’re just starting from a different point than they are now.”
The Totem Theater site will also require a variance to allow the construction of above-ground fuel storage tanks, currently in use at the Elmore Road facility. Ward said those tanks avoid contamination issues associated with underground designs.
“If they leak underground, you don’t know it,” Ward said. “If they leak above ground, you know it and you can take care of it.”
According to Dunbar, there are still two chances for the public to voice their opinion, including the Scenic Foothills Community Council meeting on Oct. 5. Dunbar says if there’s enough pushback from the community, the city will be forced to look at other sites for the new bus barn, but he’s worried that could put the mega-project in jeopardy.
Emily Carlson contributed information to this story.