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Young gets bill through House to transfer Midtown property to city, but Senate outcome is uncertain

Nathaniel Herz

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday aimed at delivering a prime piece of Midtown property to the city of Anchorage for a new transit center but the measure now faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

The bill, introduced by Alaska Rep. Don Young, directs the federal government's landlord arm to sell the 9-acre property at 40th Avenue and Denali Street to the city -- a move that's being pushed by Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The city has money set aside to buy the land, assessed at $1.75 million, Sullivan wrote in a letter last week to all three members of Alaska's congressional delegation in which he urged them to support "this noncontroversial legislation."

But following passage of the measure Tuesday, neither Sen. Mark Begich nor Sen. Lisa Murkowski offered to push the bill through the Senate or took a public position on it.

"I think there's no activity in the Senate on this," said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Young. "I think the logical question is, well, 'Why not?' That's for them to answer."

The Midtown property has a long political history. The National Archives and Records Administration bought it in 2004 from a pair of prominent local developers.

At the time, the federal agency was planning to relocate its Anchorage branch from a cramped space downtown. But the move never materialized, and the agency announced earlier this year that it was closing the downtown facility and shipping most records to another location, in Seattle, as part of an effort to pare its budget.

Asked about Young's bill Tuesday, both senators, through their press secretaries, said they were focused on working with the National Archives to ensure Alaskans maintain access to the records that have been housed in Anchorage.

Both Begich and Murkowski have pushed the agency to leave some of the records in the state and to quickly digitize the rest.

Murkowski had previously suggested that the National Archives could sell its Midtown property and use the proceeds to pay for quicker digitization.

But her press secretary Tuesday declined to comment on Young's legislation, which includes a provision to allow the National Archives "to retain the proceeds of the sale to be used for internal purposes," according to a prepared statement from Young's office.

"We're prioritizing the digitization process and trying to make as many Alaskans heard as possible," Murkowski press secretary Matthew Felling said in an email.

Begich also has suggested that the National Archives sell its Midtown property.

His press secretary, Heather Handyside, said in a phone interview Tuesday, "We're happy the bill has passed the House."

"We will take a look at it and see what we can do to move it forward," she said. But she added that Begich does not have a formal position on the measure "until the legislative staff takes a look at what the actual bill says."

Asked about the bill, a spokeswoman for Sullivan said in a text message that "it might be too early to write about it until this passes through the Senate."

"I hope our senators see the incredible benefit for Anchorage," said the spokeswoman, Lindsey Whitt.

Sullivan has prioritized acquisition of the Midtown property, which he sees as a potential new home for the city's transit center currently located downtown.

He's calling for a "transit oriented development" on the site that could combine a new hub for city buses with lower-income housing and commercial property.

Sullivan has said moving the city's transit center to Midtown would allow it to serve as the center of a reconfigured network of bus routes.

"It makes sense to have your transit center in the middle," Sullivan said in an interview in December.

That month, Sullivan met with members of the congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., where he pushed them to introduce legislation to transfer the property.

The city is also paying two lobbying firms -- Blank Rome and Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell -- to press its case.

A spokesman for the National Archives said in an email Tuesday that the agency does not comment on pending legislation. But Sullivan's letter last week to the congressional delegation says that the National Archives wants to sell the Midtown property.

The federal government bought the 9-acre parcel in 2004 for $3.5 million from a group headed by the state's most prominent developers, Jon Rubini and Leonard Hyde.

The developers had purchased the property a year earlier for just $1.5 million but the National Archives ended up paying the higher price because the property would have been worth more if it was rezoned for business -- a change that was being considered around the same time by the city Planning and Zoning Commission and the Anchorage Assembly.

Begich -- who was then Anchorage mayor and simultaneously a business partner with Rubini and Hyde -- wrote a letter to the commission supporting the change, though he said in a subsequent interview he was never the driving force behind the rezoning.

Former Sen. Ted Stevens, whom Begich replaced after the 2008 election, was also involved in the project, inserting earmarks into the federal budget to fund the purchase of the property. Stevens also was a business partner with Rubini and Hyde at the same time.

The federal purchase of the land later became the subject of an investigation by the National Archives' inspector general. It concluded that the agency "may have overpaid" for the property but didn't find any wrongdoing.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com