Years ago, Steve Gerlek and his son drove past an empty two-acre lot in the Government Hill neighborhood in Anchorage. The lot had been cleared by the state to make room for the Knik River Bridge, but when the bridge never came to fruition the lot remained an empty eyesore. As they drove by, Gerlek’s son brought up the idea of turning the lot into a community orchard. From that seed of an idea, the Government Hill Commons was born.
Gerlek and the team that rallied behind the idea envisioned the Government Hill Commons as a dynamic community space with at least 10 distinct facets to encourage gathering. For the commons, that started with an orchard. Orchard enthusiast Paul Lariviere led the effort to start growing fruit trees, and in 2017 the first harvest was held. The commons now has a prosperous orchard with apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, peaches, pears, and plums. The orchard takes up about one-fifth of the land. Another fifth is reserved for raised beds that will eventually be open for community members to use as gardens. There’s a grassy space for gathering and a nearby wall is covered in a large mural. Across the street there’s room for a sculpture garden. Gerlek hopes to one day have a café on site that could serve coffee in the morning, cider in the afternoon, and meals using ingredients grown in the orchard.
The commons is already becoming a community destination. Students from the nearby elementary school will come by in the spring to clean up the space and return in the fall to participate in a harvest. Residents will walk through the neighborhood and purposefully stop by the commons to see if anyone else is around, Gerlek says. “We don’t have to build it all at once,” he says. “We want to build it in a robust way that really builds roots into this community. We want it to outlive us and be a legacy for this neighborhood.”