After hours of impassioned public testimony Wednesday, the Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously to shelve a controversial proposal to allow homeless shelters in areas zoned for commercial uses throughout the municipality.
Several Assembly members apologized for the process followed in proposing the ordinance, which many residents who testified described as rushed, lacking in transparency and that caught them off-guard.
“It was not well thought out,” said Assembly member John Weddleton. “We need to kill it, with pleasure, I guess.”
The Assembly also voted 11-0 to hold another meeting at 6 p.m. Monday to discuss a separate ordinance that would allow the city to purchase four properties, in Midtown and Spenard, for homeless services and drug and alcohol treatment. Two properties in particular, the Best Western Golden Lion Inn on East 36th Avenue and the former Alaska Club building on Tudor Road, have drawn intense opposition from neighbors who fear increased crime, lower property values and a deterioration in quality of life.
Wednesday marked the fifth night of public testimony on the proposed ordinances, with most people voicing strong opposition. Others said even if the proposals aren’t perfect, something needs to be done to solve Anchorage’s increasingly visible homeless crisis.
As the lengthy meeting drew to a close, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz thanked city officials who drafted the proposed building purchases, saying they have been “unfairly castigated” and have had to “catch slings and arrows.”
“They worked hard, they are diligent, and I would put them up against any team comparable in the country and you should be proud that they work for this city,” the mayor said.
Berkowitz said lives depend on purchasing the buildings and acting now is needed to transform the city’s homeless response system, which the coronavirus pandemic had upended. His administration proposes using $22.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds and proceeds from the sale of city-owned Municipal Light & Power to Chugach Electric to fund the acquisitions. Due diligence will be done on the real estate transactions and the Assembly should not delay approving them, he said.
“It is the nature of leadership that you have to make decisions with imperfect information in uncertain times, and we have reached a juncture where you have to make a decision,” Berkowitz said, “We do not have the luxury of later. We have the necessity of now.”
Anchorage has reached the point where “not acting is a choice” and the Assembly has the “moral responsibility to do something,” Berkowitz said.
After Berkowitz concluded his remarks, Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia noted it was after 11:10 p.m. Everyone was exhausted after so many late nights of testimony, he said. Perez-Verdia asked the mayor and his chief of staff to return Monday and lay out the proposal again so the Assembly could dig into it and ask questions.
“I think we deserve that, the public deserves that, and I think we need to give this the opportunity to address the things we heard in a more complete way,” Perez-Verdia said.
“We accept,” Berkowitz responded.
College Village resident Beth Abisror was one of the last people to speak at the meeting. She lives near the Golden Lion hotel, which the city wants to convert to a drug and alcohol treatment center. She said she had been contacting the Assembly and asking members to address her neighborhood’s concerns but she feels no one is listening.
“We have received emails back that have said, ‘Thank you for your opinions, your stories, your concerns, I’m still voting yes. I still support this. I still trust the administration and I still trust that they have good intentions.’ That’s not good enough for us. I’m sorry. It’s just not,” Abisror said.
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