Mountain View is making a grand comeback

Photo/Michael Dineen/For the Journal

Leslie Ellis grew accustomed to the chuckles and incredulous looks.

The president and CEO of Credit Union 1 had her eye on a move to the Mountain View neighborhood for years, but that was hardly a vision shared among her peers in the business world.

“If you said it around town, people would look at you like you were crazy,” Ellis said.

Where others saw a neighborhood that had almost become a lost cause with blighted structures, rundown housing and crime, Ellis saw an opportunity. The vision was so clear to her she nearly jumped out of Carol Gore’s moving car when she heard the lot at the corner of Mountain View Drive and Bragaw was available.

“She leaped out of the car in her high heels and straight skirt before I could even stop the car,” said Gore, the CEO of Cook Inlet Housing Authority. “She put her hands on her hips and said, ‘This is going to be my corner.’” 

The lot, which had been acquired by the Anchorage Community Land Trust as part of its ongoing revitalization efforts in Mountain View, is now home to a bustling CU 1 branch that is outperforming expectations. The trust was founded in 2003 with a $5 million grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.

“I knew it would be a big step because Mountain View — especially three years ago when I started this process to get us in there — was a huge stigma for a variety of reasons,” Ellis said.

Just more than a year since it opened in June 2010, the Mountain View branch ranks in the second tier of 15 CU 1 locations, Ellis said.

“We are at least 50 percent ahead of where I thought we’d be,” she said. “I thought it would take longer for acceptance. We’ve been really well received by the community. I’m really happy with it and so is our board of directors.”

Before CU 1 opened, it had been 20 years since a financial institution had done business in Mountain View.

Hope had also moved out, leaving behind payday lenders and pawnshops, a shuttered library and a crumbling Clark Middle School.

Drive around Mountain View today, though, and you’ll see bright colors and manicured lawns dotting the neighborhood streets in the form of some 228 new homes, duplexes and multi-family complexes built since 2004 by Cook Inlet Housing Authority using nearly $100 million in various public and private funding sources.

CIHA has redeveloped 10 percent of the residential units in Mountain View, tearing out the most blighted structures and replacing them with custom-built affordable housing using a “scattered site” approach that has touched nearly every block in the neighborhood.

Neighborworks and Habitat for Humanity have also worked in Mountain View.

The library is open again, and it’s the busiest in the city. Clark Middle School has been rebuilt from the ground up and parent participation has increased to 90 percent from 50 percent, Gore said.

Renovated storefronts, new mixed-use retail/residential buildings and the sparkling Mountain View Diner now welcome visitors to the neighborhood. Murals by local artists cover several buildings and fences.

Those leading the efforts to change Mountain View aren’t just painting over its problems either. They are also changing the culture.

Changing outlook

Bill Tsurnos used to gaze out a window in his cell at San Quentin State Prison looking down at packed California freeways full of commuters.

He’d wonder how all these people could afford cars, or hold down the jobs that gave them the income to make payments. He remembered getting out of one of many stints in jail and not knowing how to use an ATM.

Pointing to the men working in the kitchen and behind the counter at Mountain View Diner, Tsurnos said he knows the dysfunctional mentality of crime and drug abuse that can cripple the ability to function within society to the point where buying a car or simply getting a job seem like impossible tasks.

“I’ve done everything these guys have done, and things they never want to do,” he said.

He understands what it’s like to be angry all the time. Now he can’t stop smiling.

Tsurnos, 61, has been sober for 19 years now — “not even a beer,” he says proudly — and three years ago he graduated from University of New Mexico with degrees in history and psychology.

He’s the director of Chanlyut (pronounced shawn-loot, the Athabascan word for “new beginnings”), a program administered by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council modeled on the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. Tsurnos spent 11 years in the Delancey Street program learning how to live a normal life.

Those are the lessons he’s passing along to the 18 men in Chanlyut, who live together in a cohort adjacent to the Mountain View Diner.

Rising at 3 a.m. daily, a routine built on work ethic is followed. The men work for the diner and the other Chanlyut businesses that pay for the program, such as its catering, wholesale food items, janitorial, landscaping and moving companies.

They also volunteer for neighborhood clean-ups, support the local Boys and Girls Club and have adopted a local park named for Louis G. Mizelle, an Anchorage police officer slain in Mountain View in 1989.

Chanlyut cookies, brownies, salads, sandwiches and breakfast burritos are sold around town at Kaladi Bros., Coho Cup, Chevron gas stations, Providence Alaska Medical Center and the Alaska Club.

Residents work every aspect of the business from back-end prep to front-end customer service and sales, learning a variety of skills that will qualify them for many kinds of jobs when they graduate from the two-year program.

Of the residents who have entered Chanlyut since January 2009, 70 percent have not reoffended. Many have successfully completed parole or probation periods and are now free of the Department of Corrections for the first time in their adult lives.

“When you do good, good things come to you,” is Tsurnos’ mantra.

With Credit Union 1 in the neighborhood, they can even get one of those car loans that were once so mystifying to Tsurnos.

“We’re changing men’s lives while the neighborhood is changing,” he said. “That’s what we’re really about. This is not the neighborhood I came to in 2008.”

Rewarding investment

CU 1 had already developed financial literacy curriculum before moving to Mountain View. The programs target people who have fallen out of the banking system over the years, or have never dealt with a financial institution.

In Mountain View, the design of the CU 1 branch itself was to draw in residents who might otherwise be intimidated by a “stodgy banking institution,” Ellis said.

Huge plate glass windows allow in natural light and a vaulted ceiling with raw wood beams gives a welcoming atmosphere. Tellers speak the variety of languages heard in Mountain View such as Spanish, Samoan and Hmong. Utility drop boxes hang neatly on a wall and CU 1 employees drop off the payments daily.

Loan officers are trained to help members with no credit or impaired credit.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things Credit Union 1 has ever done,” Ellis said. “Every week there is some win.”

Although it has certainly benefited from the generosity of nonprofits and foundations, Mountain View isn’t a charity case. Ellis isn’t in the neighborhood to lose money, and neither are businesses like GCI or Subway, both planning to open new locations here.

“People in Mountain View have money,” Ellis said. “They may not have a lot of money, but it is a real working community.”

Residents are making more money nowadays, too. The number of households with income greater than $50,000 has doubled, to 30 percent. Population is up by 18 percent, vacancy rates are down and 23 percent of homes are owner-occupied with potential for another 23 percent over the next 15 years.

Home values are also up by more than 150 percent in the last 10 years.

The colorful new homes of Mountain View wouldn’t have been possible without the design work of Anchorage builder John Hagmeier. Known as a premier builder of million-dollar homes, Hagmeier was inspired by the challenge of designing small-footprint homes with the high-end touches like solid countertops and stainless steel appliances. He’s built 55 homes in Mountain View since 2004, and fellow premier builder Bob Peterson has contributed design work on duplexes and townhomes.

For the first time, a Mountain View home was featured in the Anchorage Home Builders’ Parade of Homes. Another first was including affordable housing in the parade.

Gore, of Cook Inlet Housing Authority, clasped her hands over her heart as she described a letter she received from Hagmeier written — in true contractor style — in pencil.

“I have this great letter from John I will treasure all my life,” Gore said. “He said it was the most remarkable work he’d ever done in his life. He made a profit of course, but he was pleased to give back.”

The scattered site approach of dropping “baby Hagmeier” homes into the neighborhood has moved others, according to Anchorage Community Land Trust CEO Jewel Jones.

“It inspires people to just grab a paintbrush, mow their lawns,” she said. “The last couple years it has been astounding to see that taking place.”

It’s not hard to find people taking a new pride in the neighborhood.

Along Park Street, Jordan Quinones, Charlie Osteen and Rochelle Jennings work on an old truck on a bright Friday morning. Osteen, who moved to Anchorage from Jacksonville, Fla., about a year ago, described himself as a “recession mechanic” and proudly pointed to several vehicles on the street he’d fixed.

Unlike Jacksonville, Osteen said there’s “not a part of this neighborhood I wouldn’t walk in day or night.”

Jennings, 21, and Quinones, 24, have spent their whole lives in Mountain View. Jennings said the neighborhood was like “the Wild West” during the 1990s. Quinones said the neighborhood is about “a hundred times” nicer than it once was.

“Mountain View has changed for the better,” he said.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

09/29/2011 - 10:03am