Editor’s note: In the last of this two-part series, the Homer News looks at the changes planned for Old Town and its challenges.
In the 1930s when the Homer Women’s Club wanted a community hall in what’s now called Old Town, women held socials to raise money for supplies and persuaded their husbands to build it. Thus the Homer Women’s Club building got constructed, and pioneer residents got a hall to hold dances and town meetings.
It’s in that spirit of cooperation Homer’s historic Old Town has gone through a renaissance that started in the 1990s and has accelerated in the past few years. Through a collaboration between residents, nonprofits, businesses and the city of Homer, the area has seen these accomplishments:
• With a $150,000 grant from ArtPlace America, Bunnell Street Arts Center started Old Town Artists in Residence, a program to bring in public art and gardens;
• Bunnell Street Arts Center, Maura’s Café and AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse and Tavern built a boardwalk along Main Street and West Bunnell Avenue linking the facilities;
• Rick and Connie Vann, private landowners at the bottom of Main Street, built public pedestrian access on their property from the road to the beach;
• The Homer Bike Club donated artistic bike racks to go up in Old Town;
• Volunteers under the guidance of peony grower Rita Shultz planted a People’s Garden with vegetables by Bunnell Street Arts Center; and
• The Homer City Council appropriated $98,500 in Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails Program funds for improvements in the area.
The improvements include widening East Bunnell Avenue and Beluga Place adding pedestrian walking lanes and narrowing driving lanes to “calm” traffic; paving and striping the Bishop’s Beach parking lot; adding cross walks; installing pedestrian signs; lowering the speed limit to 15 mph, and making the east end of Charles Way a walking and bike path.
Old Town doesn’t have an official description, but Brianna Allen, the Old Town Neighborhood Association coordinator, defines it as the area south of the Sterling Highway from Ohlson Lane to the eastern edge of the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, with the western edge the Homer Elks Lodge. About 20 businesses or nonprofits are in Old Town, including five restaurants, a bar, numerous B & Bs, several shops and galleries and offices for professional businesses.
“It has a unique mix of the elements over here,” Allen said. “We have art, we have music, we have the top-three rated restaurants, we have beautiful scenery.”
Like the Homer Spit, Old Town has its share of summer rentals, but there’s a sizable resident population, especially in two condominium developments, the Baywatch Condominiums and the Old Town Cottages. From three-story beachfront houses to derelict motor homes, Old Town residents live in a wide variety of structures. About 20 lots on East Bunnell Avenue, lower Main Street and Charles Way don’t even have water and sewer. Assessed property values range from $500,000 for a beach-front home to $500 for a wetland lot on Beluga Slough.
In the 1990s, Old Town had a bit of a seedy reputation. Kurt Marquardt, the former Homer City Council member who bought the Inlet Trading Post — the building housing Bunnell Street Arts Center — and later developed the Old Town Cottages, noted how artist R.W. “Toby” Tyler had titled as “lower Homer” a painting of a cluster of trailers on East Bunnell Avenue.
“We all got a kick out of the double entendre there,” Marquardt said. “The folks inhabiting the area took a certain amount of pride in it being different.”
That rough character gave some of Old Town its identity, said Asia Freeman, executive director of Bunnell Street Arts Center.
“When the artists got started here in this space, the neighborhood was filled with a combination of charm and riffraff,” she said.
Since Marquardt bought the Inlet Trading Post and began renovating it in 1990, Old Town has seen steady expansion and renovations. Marquardt and his parents also built what he calls “the yellow building” across Main Street from the Bunnell Street Arts Center, which houses Sea Glo Cosmetics, the North Gulf Oceanic Society and an apartment. Buck and Shelly Laukitis built the Compass Rose Building on East Bunnell Avenue, offices for Inner Nature Chiropractic Center, Sundog Consultants and ZatzWorks Inc.
In 2003, Two Sisters, now owned by Carri Thurman and Sharon Roufa, moved out of the Bunnell Street Arts Center building into its own place on East Bunnell Avenue. The federal government built the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, including the headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. A recently rebuilt trail runs from Islands and Ocean down to Beluga Slough, with a side trail to East Bunnell Avenue by Two Sisters.
Renovations have inspired other remodeling. Adrienne Sweeney, who with her husband Alex bought the Driftwood Inn in 2003, said the changes at Bunnell Street Arts Center inspired her, including Bunnell’s renovation of its front porch, a feature she added to the inn.
“It really is a domino effect,” she said.
The Sweeneys continued using that Old Town aesthetic when they bought Duggan’s Waterfront Pub in 2011, remodeling it and turning the bar into a family restaurant. Sweeney said she wanted to bring the business back to its roots in the 1940s and 1950s when Marge and Tex Sharp ran it as a steakhouse with piano music.
“It’s making it an earlier closing, more family restaurant with a tavern versus a bar with a grill,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s neighbors credit the change in AJ’s clientele to reducing some rowdiness in the area.
“I don’t hear people walking up the street screaming and swearing anymore,” said Karen Marquardt.
Marquardt, a Realtor with the Alderfer Group and Kurt’s sister, lives in one of the Old Town Cottages. The cluster of eight homes sit on a small lot behind AJ’s and Bunnell Street Arts Center and below another Old Town landmark, the Old Inlet Book Shop and Mermaid Café, built in the 1930s by the Hansen family.
People own the buildings and a 4-foot wide buffer around them, but the cottages are technically condominiums. Some cottages are weekend or summer homes, but most residents live there year round. It’s a nice mix of in-town convenience with beach access, Marquardt said. The cottages also add to the sense of community.
“It’s comforting to have my neighbors,” she said. “Obviously you’re not isolated. You know you’ve got a neighbor around if you do hear a strange noise at night.”
The Old Town Artist in Residence program will continue renovations in Old Town. Dan Coe recently installed a fireweed mural on the Driftwood RV Park fence. In cooperation with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Old Town AIR supported a project by Wendy Erd to write poems about the slough that will go on signs along the trail.
Five artists in residence also will visit in early 2014 to do artistic collaborations. Artist Mike Houston, who did a prior Bunnell Street Arts Center residency, has designed a “Welcome to Old Town” sign that the Homer Advisory Planning Commission has already approved to be installed at the Ohlson Lane entrance to Old Town, Allen said. A steel bench made by sculptor Breezy Callens has been installed at the People’s Garden by the arts center. Similar public art will go up around the area.
Although Old Town has become less rowdy, two big problems remain: traffic and parking. Some drivers speed through Old Town to Bishop’s Beach. Sweeney said she’s afraid to let her children walk from the Driftwood Inn to Two Sisters by themselves.
“The traffic is such that it’s dangerous,” she said. “The biggest thing we’re trying to tackle is having people slow down.”
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said he’s aware of speeding complaints, but enforcement can be hard.
“We see the black tire marks on the roadway,” he said. “As soon as we turn that corner by Two Sisters, they can see us and everybody starts behaving.”
Lowering the speed limit to 15 mph should help. The city also will try traffic calming measures, like striping lanes so they’re narrower. Pavement has been added to East Bunnell Avenue to give pedestrians and bicyclists more room, too.
“That’s fantastic,” Sweeney said. “Studies have found if you actually narrow the streets, people will slow down. That will be great to have enough space to walk.”
Robl said police will start enforcement of the new 15 mph speed limit by first giving warnings.
Sweeney said she even has tried a bit of social engineering — bolting a tricycle to the ground at the intersection of Ohlson Lane and West Bunnell Avenue so drivers will think there’s a child nearby.
Old Town’s narrow streets also present parking challenges. By Two Sisters on East Bunnell Avenue, parking is restricted to one side only, but even then that can present problems.
“It compromises our emergency response,” Robl said. “I don’t like it.”
Two Sisters has sufficient parking for its zoning, but some people also use the Two Sisters parking lot for beach parking when the Bishop’s Beach lot is crowded, making the situation worse, said Thurman.
“There’s nothing down here in Old Town,” she said of parking. “If people were parking up at Islands and Oceans, that would be cool, but that lot isn’t big, either.”
One thing the Homer Chamber of Commerce did this summer was to mark its lot with access to Ohlson Lane as Old Town parking, particularly for motorhomes. The Old Town Neighborhood Association also has suggested widening some streets to allow on-street parking.
“I don’t know fully what the answer is,” Thurman said. “What Brianna and those guys over at Bunnell have done is starting a really awesome dialogue everyone can wrap their brains around.”
The Old Town renaissance has had ripple effects beyond the neighborhood. The public-private partnership doesn’t need government regulation to work, Sweeney said.
“If we can do this kind of thing in Old Town, it can inspire other parts of town,” she said. “If you lead by example, it will all come out for the good of everyone.”
• Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Old Town at a glance
Borders: On the north, the Sterling Highway from Ohlson Lane to the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center; on the east, Beluga Slough; on the west, Ohlson Lane and Jenny Lane by the Homer Elks lodge; on the south, Kachemak Bay and Bishop’s Beach
Area: about 70 acres
Highest assessed home: $576,000
Lowest assessed lot: $500
Number of private lots without water and sewer: about 20 with street access
Number of private homes, including condos: About 30, not counting transient motorhomes
Speed limit, Main Street, Bunnell Avenue and Beluga Place: 15 mph