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Home for Anchorage street inebriates gets hearing tonight

Lisa Demer
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

A months-long battle over Anchorage's first big housing project for homeless alcoholics will come to a head today when both sides take their arguments to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission.

At stake: A project that many advocates for the homeless say is Anchorage's best chance to get some of the city's most vulnerable and hardest-core alcoholics off the streets and out of the parks, woods and greenbelts, where 23 have died over the last 14 months. Most were worn down by years of hard living.

At Karluk Manor, they won't have to stop drinking, but, based on the experience of a similar program in Seattle, they might drink less once they have a warm bed, ready meals and services on site. And backers say they are more likely to do their drinking indoors. They will be safer and so will the neighborhood, advocates say.

Lined up against it are nearby businesses, the Fairview Community Council and the city Planning Department, which has recommended the commission deny the conditional use permit the project needs.

Planners say Fairview and downtown already have more than their share of social-service programs and other magnets for the homeless. They say the proposed location between two busy roads and near two parks is a poor choice for housing chronic alcoholics.

Mayor Dan Sullivan hasn't gotten involved in the permit, but the city planners who oppose the location were aware he had concerns about the site, and that factored into their recommendation, said Planning Director Jerry Weaver.

The housing project is championed by Rural CAP, which already operates smaller scale low-income housing and a residential program in Mountain View for chronic alcoholics. Rural CAP proposes to turn the old Red Roof Inn into Karluk Manor -- 48 efficiency units with private bathrooms, microwave ovens and mini refrigerators.

Gambling that the city permission will follow, Rural CAP paid $1.1 million for the property, along Karluk Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It was awarded $3.5 million in state housing grants to cover the purchase and renovation costs and help run the program for three years. But it won't get the money without the city permit.

Melinda Freemon, director of Rural CAP in Anchorage, said Karluk Manor will improve the neighborhood by targeting homeless alcoholics now on the streets.

"They already are there. I see them all the time. We have informed the Fairview Community Council and the neighborhood that these will be our top priority tenants, to take them out of Fairview (streets) and safely place them in housing," Freemon said.

The goal is to save lives, she said, and the old Red Roof Inn is the best affordable site Rural CAP found after a couple of years of looking.

"Some of these people are in Fairview. There's no question," said Heidi Heinrich, an opponent who works as a general manager of the Lucky Wishbone restaurant across Fifth Avenue.

Many end up there because police and the Community Service Patrol bring them to the sleep-off center next to the city jail, she said. When they sober up, Heinrich said, they are let out on the streets of Fairview, not taken back to where they were found.

"We're not NIMBYs," Heinrich said. "It's not a question of we don't want them in our backyard. It's that we have enough in our backyard already."

CITY OFFICES CONFLICT

Karluk Manor would serve as Anchorage's first big Housing First effort. The premise is that a place to live is therapeutic in itself.

Backers say it should save money by reducing the need for emergency room visits, jail stays and Community Service Patrol pickups. That's what happened when Seattle launched its 1811 Eastlake program.

Police, fire, parks and traffic officials said they had no objections and even saw some benefit.

However, city planners oppose the location. One issue they raised is the project's proximity to two parks. A new city law setting standards for "severe alcohol dependent housing" says such projects must be 500 feet away, unless the planning commission makes an exception.

Planners weren't troubled by a small park on Fifth Avenue. But about 430 feet south of Sixth Avenue, the Fairview Lions Park is frequented by children, as well as transients, the planners noted.

Rural CAP has volunteered to adopt the park, keep it clean and check it at least every third day. But planners say the Karluk Manor operators won't be able to watch it 24-7 and urged the commission not to grant an exception.

The planners' position differs from that of parks officials.

Karluk Manor "should have a positive impact by reducing the frequency of chronically homeless staying on or in park facilities," John Rodda, director of city Parks and Recreation Department, wrote in an e-mail to the city Department of Neighborhoods, which oversaw a separate environmental review.

As to traffic, the city's recently retired traffic engineer, Bob Kniefel, told the department that from 1998 to 2008, only two crashes involving pedestrians occurred around Karluk and Fifth and Sixth avenues. That's a low rate, he said. Adding 38 more residents to the area -- the plan actually is for 48 -- wouldn't make a difference, he noted.

Police Chief Mark Mew and Deputy Fire Chief Douglas Schrage also didn't anticipate problems.

City planners point out that Karluk Manor is along "a known migration corridor for the homeless." Housing for such homeless alcoholics should be located away from where the residents' friends hang out, the staff report said.

WORRIES IN FAIRVIEW

The old Red Roof Inn is in a business district. Nearby are an Allstate Insurance office, the iconic Lucky Wishbone, a print shop, a florist, bail bondsmen, a check cashing outlet, Kings' X Lounge, and the Alaska Sales & Service car dealership.

Copper River Seafoods recently moved its corporate offices next door. It had been interested in buying the motel to house seafood processing workers and employees in training.

There's high density housing and private homes to the south but no one lives within a couple blocks of the site.

Planners said Karluk Manor wouldn't improve the neighborhood aesthetics. A Rural CAP rendering of its finished project shows a freshly painted, newly landscaped building, which isn't the case with most of the older businesses nearby.

"The Karluk Manor project would include the complete rehabilitation of an existing rundown hotel. When all is said and done, the building will appear virtually new and will be an attractive addition to the community," Tim Potter, a planner with engineering firm Dowl HKM who is consulting for Rural CAP, wrote to the city.

Planners say Fairview and downtown already have "a highly disproportionate significant number of homeless related support services." There's Bean's Cafe, Brother Francis Shelter, the sleep-off center, the Downtown Soup Kitchen; and other magnets like the downtown job center and a Carrs grocery store and Oaken Keg liquor store at 13th Avenue and Gambell Street, planners said.

"Putting 48 end-stage alcoholics in this environment with the expectation that they will drink less is like putting someone with an affinity for cookies in the middle of a bakery and expecting them to lose weight," Fairvew Community Council president Sharon Chamard wrote in a public comment on the permit request. The Seattle project is in a well-to-do commercial area, not near where homeless people hang out, she wrote.

Freemon said social services are all over Anchorage. Rural CAP operates housing in Mountain View, Russian Jack and the Taku-Campbell area. And residential alcohol and drug treatment centers are scattered from West Anchorage to East Anchorage to the north end of town in Mountain View, according to the city's own map.

THE SHOWDOWN

In May, Sullivan's homeless leadership team unanimously recommended the city and the mayor support Karluk Manor as the city's initial big Housing First project. The mayor officially doesn't have a role in the project approval but speaks up when asked.

"I'm still holding my mind open about the concept of wet housing, but in terms of Karluk Manor, I still am not really comfortable with that location," Sullivan said in May.

Freemon says Rural CAP's priority is safety for tenants, its staff and the neighborhood. It will staff Karluk Manor around the clock, install security cameras, require residents to sign in and out, and put strict limits on visitors, including requiring them to leave by 8 p.m. No guests will be allowed if either the tenant or guest appears drunk, and guests can't bring in alcohol, under the house rules.

The agency said it is making changes to address concerns. It won't allow violent offenders or sex offenders, and meals will be provided seven days a week to better keep people on site. It will only serve people who were picked up in Fairview to begin with.

While Karluk Manor may not be a perfect location, it's not bad, and for hard-core street alcoholics, "we have to come up with something different. We've done the same thing for a long time," said Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis Shelter, which provides overnight shelter for the homeless.

Both sides are marshaling forces for tonight's planning commission meeting.

Hundreds of people have written in comments on the city website, with those supporting the project running ahead as of the middle of last week. But those against it include state Rep. Les Gara and Sen. Johnny Ellis, who note the safety concerns from neighbors. They represent Fairview in the Legislature.

Heinrich and others printed fliers and posted them door to door trying to rally the opposition. They wore big buttons indicating their opposition at a meeting Thursday of the advisory Housing and Neighborhood Development Commission, which reversed an earlier vote and decided to support the project.

Rural CAP submitted a 216-page response to the planning staff report that includes photos, crime reports and numerous letters urging support.

Either side could appeal the planning commission decision to the city's Board of Adjustment and from there to Anchorage Superior Court.

"At this point, we don't have a plan B," Freemon said. "We will keep moving forward with our efforts to open Karluk Manor, whatever it takes."

Hearing at 6:30 p.m. in the library The Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission will take up the issue of a conditional use permit for the proposed Karluk Manor at a special hearing to start at 6:30 p.m. today. The commission meets in the Assembly Chambers at Loussac Library.

More on Anchorage's homeless
By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com