A group of California developers is planning a high-end 450-unit housing complex for the site of a 30-acre East Anchorage trailer park.
The group seeks to break ground at Riviera Terrace Mobile Home Park next summer on the first of four phases of row houses and apartments, which are designed to appeal to military members and people who work in the city's burgeoning U-Med District.
The developers have recognized the heavy demand for housing in the city, said Cameron Johnson, a Wasilla High School graduate who has worked on projects in the Mat-Su valley area and considers himself an "Alaska-based developer."
Anchorage's vacancy rate -- 3.3 percent in 2013 -- is below the healthy average, and residents and local leaders have been grappling with the problem of "housing gridlock."
"We're very bullish on the short-term and long-term economic outlook for the city of Anchorage, the Mat-Su valley and the state of Alaska as a whole," Johnson, 36, said in a phone interview Monday after his flight landed in Anchorage, where he has meetings this week with city officials and Assembly members. "We're well aware of the housing crisis in the city, which is part of the reason why we've been so aggressive in looking for a suitable site."
Johnson said his group passed on as many as 40 other properties before purchasing Riviera Terrace two months ago. The property, off Boniface Parkway south of Northern Lights Boulevard, was appraised at $3.8 million in its most recent assessment by the city.
He said that the trailer park currently has 170 occupied units, out of about 190 spaces. The developers, Johnson added, are pledging nearly $1 million for relocation expenses for Riviera Terrace's current residents.
The developers ultimately envision upscale two- and three-bedroom row houses and apartments with garages, as well as a community building, exercise areas, even a fenced dog park. Preliminary projections for rent are $1,400 to $2,000 a month.
The project's first phase, expected to cost $20 million and finish in the summer of 2016, will be limited to the north end of the property, and nearly all current tenants there will be relocated within the mobile home park, Johnson said.
The developers plan to submit an application next month to have the property rezoned, which would be required to build to "the density they are proposing," said Kristine Bunnell, a senior city planner.
They are also trying to determine whether Riviera Terrace can qualify for a tax exemption through a provision in municipal code that allows the city's chief financial officer and the Assembly to declare a property "deteriorated," which is permissible if the property houses decrepit buildings or needs environmental remediation.
Johnson said the site did, in fact, need remediation for a heating oil spill, and that some of the trailers were so old they would have to be demolished.
He will meet with local Assembly members Wednesday to request their support for the project, and for getting the deteriorated property declaration, according to Cher Easley, an Assembly aide.
Residents of the trailer park said Monday they'd been hearing rumors about a sale for years.
Charlie Hoff, a 42-year-old video store clerk, said he moved into his unit in 2006, paying $7,000 for the trailer, blue with white trim, that he now shares with a dog, a cat and his partner.
The trailer space, he said, costs $425 in rent each month, plus utilities and about $200 in taxes every year.
"A lot of us can't really afford more than what we're paying," he said. "We didn't get no Ph.D. -- we're just video clerks and Wal-Mart workers."
The property currently houses a mix of tightly packed trailers -- some wide and well maintained, with tidy yards, while others appear abandoned, with peeling paint and bulging siding.
As of 2007, the average home at Riviera Terrace dated back to 1971, according Susan Fison, a former city planning director who is now a consultant for a local housing group.
Around the city, there are 670 acres of mobile home parks, with the majority of units at least 44 years old, according to data Fison has collected.
Hoff said he was concerned about what would happen if Riviera Estates' new owners forced him to move.
"If the housing market and rental market was adequate, I wouldn't be so worried about this place closing down," he said. "But it's not adequate. They want $850 for a one-bedroom."
Johnson said the developers were prepared to pay for relocation of all the trailers at Riviera Terrace, even though that's not required under state law, which simply mandates a 270-day notice of eviction.
Some of the trailers, Johnson acknowledged, would be impossible to move but he said that for those tenants, "we'll work out something," which could include assisting with a deposit or rent at a new residence.
"We're committed to finding alternative housing for them," he said.
The developers are even considering building their own mobile home park in the Mat-Su valley area.
Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said the Riviera Terrace project would start reversing the city's housing crunch.
Currently, the city needs 900 housing units built annually, Popp said, but has only averaged about 300 a year over the last five years.
"Anything is going to help at this point," he said. "But we need a lot more activity, and a lot more projects like this."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ