Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration held a public meeting this week on one of the most important elements of the city’s new plan to address homelessness.
But the mayor, the head of the city health department and other key administration officials ended up giving a presentation about the planned East Anchorage homeless shelter to a largely empty auditorium.
The administration did little to tell the public the meeting Thursday was happening, prompting outcry from some members of the community and the Assembly. One Assembly member who is helping negotiate the homelessness plan did not find out about the meeting until the day it happened.
The administration intended for the meeting to fulfill a requirement as part of the process for acquiring conditional use permit approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission in order to build the shelter.
The Bronson administration did not respond to an interview request. Sent a list of questions about Thursday’s meeting, a spokesperson emailed back answers to several of them and did not address others.
“This is a critical project and we understand the importance of area wide community engagement beyond the one required community meeting for a conditional use permit,” said spokesman Corey Allen Young. “This is why there has been two listening sessions along with a conditional use permit meeting and we are in the process of meeting with the community councils that the project is within and adjacent to.”
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, in an email to a concerned member of Campbell Park Community Council, said he was “shocked” that the city held a meeting in the Assembly chambers that wasn’t noticed on any municipal calendar.
“I have notified the contractor that if this is the meeting the Mayor intends to use as his required community outreach for a proposed rezone, if Planning and Zoning accepts this, I will fight to remand and demand an actual publicly noticed meeting, not this shady effort at a meeting,” Constant said.
The meeting had been livestreamed on the mayor’s Facebook page Thursday evening. A recording was posted to the mayor’s YouTube channel late Friday afternoon.
Young said the proper notification was given as part of the application process for the conditional use permit — the city mailed postcards with the meeting information to about 170 residents within the vicinity of the project. The meeting date was also shared at the presentations that were given to the University Area Community Council and Basher Community Council, he said.
A person on the community council where the shelter will be located, Campbell Park, said they weren’t given notice of the meeting until the day of, and only because the administration was canceling a presentation it had been scheduled to give them about the project that same night.
“It just boggles my mind,” said Andrew Gray, who is secretary of the Campbell Park Community Council but said he was speaking in a personal capacity. “I don’t think the people in our area are necessarily opposed to this. We just want some communication, and we can’t get it.” He was one of just a handful in the audience Thursday in the Loussac Library. Gray is also a co-founder of Anchorage Action, a political group that has opposed Bronson.
Though the mayor proposed a version of the project last summer, Bronson officials have never spoken about it at a council, Gray said.
Young said the administration is working to reschedule the meeting with Campbell Park Community Council.
Tyler Robinson, president of the University Area Community Council, an area near the proposed shelter, called the late notice for Thursday’s meeting “highly unusual.” Under the Title 21 procedural requirements in city code, developers take clear steps to hear feedback from community members on projects, he said.
Robinson served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission for seven years.
If the administration plans to point to Thursday’s sparsely attended meeting as proof it has fulfilled its permitting obligations, it is not in line with the spirit of public process requirements, he said.
“That’s not a very believable way to check the box in this process,” Robinson said. “Everything points to the fact that the city wants to skip this process to get the shelter done.”
The city is fast-tracking the East Anchorage shelter and navigation center project along with several other projects that are part of a plan to stand down its COVID-19-era emergency mass care operations at Sullivan Arena and non-congregate shelters this summer, while also expanding longer-term homelessness services in Anchorage.
The Assembly narrowly voted to approve funding for the shelter’s construction earlier this month after hearing a litany of concerns from residents, and also after many members, including some who voted in favor, expressed trepidation over ambiguous details on funding and plans for the shelter’s operations.
Late in Thursday’s meeting, Bronson told the audience that his administration plans to sell the former Golden Lion Hotel, which is set to be used as a substance misuse treatment center as part of the city’s overall approach to homelessness.
“The Golden Lion is being sold. We have two bidders for it right now. So we’re not using the Golden Lion for treatment services or homeless facilities,” Bronson said.
But the Assembly, by a unanimous vote, made $6.2 million in funding for the 150-bed East Anchorage shelter project contingent on the administration making a “good faith effort” to turn the building into a substance misuse treatment center.
Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, who proposed linking the shelter funding to the Golden Lion, said that the mayor can’t sell the building without Assembly approval — that would violate city law.
“If we have a navigation center, and we have a shelter, people need somewhere to navigate into,” she said, saying there is a “desperate need” for substance misuse treatment in the city.
Bronson has long been against using the building for that purpose, and promised supporters repeatedly during his campaign for mayor that he would sell the building once elected.
The administration on Friday appeared to walk back Bronson’s remarks made Thursday night.
“The administration is working in good faith to accomplish the goals of the facilitation plan,” Young said.
Asked about the discrepancy between the mayor’s remarks about selling the Golden Lion and the city’s formal plan to turn it into a treatment facility, Young said he had no comment.
A negotiation group that includes members of the Assembly, the Bronson administration and private organizations such as the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness for months have been developing a plan for the city to address homelessness. Assembly member Felix Rivera, a member of that team, said the group had recently agreed to explore using the Golden Lion as an option for standing up additional substance misuse treatment, a key element of the city’s homelessness plans.
“We’re in the middle of that discussion — we quite literally just started that discussion, so what was said yesterday at the meeting is in direct contradiction to the work of the facilitated process,” Rivera said.
Rivera, who had implored other Assembly members to approve funding the East Anchorage shelter project, said that he was not notified about the meeting until the day of, and only because he represents Campbell Park Community Council. Many other Assembly members received no notification, he said.