A proposed multimillion-dollar real estate deal emerged this week as part of a new city strategy to relieve some of Anchorage’s homelessness problems.
A Spenard hotel is on the municipality’s radar as the possible site of a transitional housing shelter. City officials are also considering purchasing Bean’s Cafe downtown and turning it into a daytime “engagement center” for people experiencing homelessness, a place where they could access services.
During a briefing earlier this week, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s chief of staff said Americas Best Value Inn & Suites in Spenard has 100 rooms that could accommodate unsheltered residents as well as provide office space for social service agency workers. The mayor’s chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, said the project’s purpose would be to provide what he called “bridge housing.”
Similar to transitional housing, bridge housing offers a temporary situation while tenants search for permanent homes and take steps to get their lives on track, often with the help of case managers.
The hotel, at 4360 Spenard Road near Lakeshore Drive, could house clients for up to two years, including 24/7 “programmatic assistance or services for self-sufficiency skills,” according to city code.
The municipality is also interested in the former Alaska Club building on Tudor Road just west of the Old Seward Highway. It wants to convert the former gym to a daytime engagement center and overnight shelter, said Bockenstedt. The building could shelter up to 125 people, said Chris Schutte, Anchorage’s economic and community development director.
The coronavirus emergency has shifted the city’s homeless shelter system, which used to involve cramped conditions at Brother Francis Shelter and Bean’s Cafe on East Third Avenue. To relieve overcrowding as the highly infectious virus spread, the city opened two sporting arenas as mass shelters to allow 6 feet of spacing between cots. The Ben Boeke Ice Arena has since closed as a homeless shelter while the adjacent Sullivan Arena continues to accommodate up to 377 people. But as Alaska’s short summer moves toward fall, pressure is mounting to find more permanent solutions for a portion of the city’s roughly 1,100 homeless residents.
“We cannot stay in the Sullivan Arena forever,” said Bockenstedt.
To help to address homelessness, the Berkowitz administration also hopes to buy the Best Western Golden Lion Inn in Midtown and turn it into a drug and alcohol treatment center with “step-down” housing, a transitional period in a patient’s recovery.
The administration would need approval from the Anchorage Assembly to purchase and remodel the four buildings and is planning to request $22.5 million to do so. An ordinance laying out the proposal, AO 2020-66, is expected to be introduced to the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday. The funding would come from the federal CARES Act. If the city acquires the buildings, some $300,000 in property taxes would be moved from tax rolls, according to an economic analysis of the ordinance.
Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, said her board has yet to decide if it wants to sell the building, which has served as a soup kitchen and shelter. Bean’s closed its operation on East Third Avenue in late March and moved it to the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas under a contract with the municipality. The nonprofit is getting a building appraisal at the city’s request, Sauder said.
Neighborhood pushback in some parts of town is likely as the city moves forward with the proposed building purchases.
“There are always those folks who want a solution to the problem but don’t necessarily want it in their neighborhood. And we’re certainly cognizant of that and want to go through this process in a public way. We want to have discussions with all the impacted communities and neighborhoods and figure out how to make this work,” said Bockenstedt.
The Midtown Community Council passed a resolution last fall endorsing the concept of a daytime engagement center. But the idea of turning a hotel into an addiction recovery center with step-down housing is already drawing intense scrutiny from homeowners in the Geneva Woods and Rogers Park neighborhoods.
“There has been no transparency about this whole thing. It came as a shock,” said John Finley, a Geneva Woods resident. “I have lost sleep.”
Finley said he worries about the safety of his son and others. He also thinks property values in his neighborhood will drop if the project goes forward.
Linda Chase, vice president of the Rogers Park Community Council, said Anchorage needs more alcohol and drug treatment options. But she doesn’t approve of the way the administration is handling a process that could have wide-ranging implications for her community. There should have been more community outreach upfront, she said.
“This administration likes to just lay things on the community before there has been much input or discussion,” said Chase.
Bockenstedt said the city is following the standard public process. It involves due diligence, formulating a proposal, putting an ordinance before the Assembly, multiples cycles of work sessions, public hearings and more before any final decisions are made. More details about the proposal should be available within the next few days.
“We are not trying to blindside anyone,” he said.