A city project to build a large homeless shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage nearly met its end Tuesday night as Assembly members came close to voting down entirely the $4.9 million needed to continue construction. Construction on the project broke ground earlier this month.
Instead, the Assembly postponed voting on the funds until Oct. 25. It will again consider the change requested by the administration to increase, by millions of dollars, the contracted amount for the project’s general contractor.
Now the project is hanging on by a thread. Assembly members, already skeptical or outright opposed, are again balking at increasing costs, the rushed timeline and the lack of information from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration about the project, even as construction has begun.
“We have got diddly squat from the administration, and we can’t possibly be expected to make millions of dollars worth of investment without having answers to these questions. Our legislative process doesn’t work that way. The public process doesn’t work that way,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, also chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
The Bronson administration is arguing that the members have been involved in decisions along the way and agreed to the expedited process for contracting and construction. The mayor is also banking on the project to help shelter some of the city’s more than 350 homeless residents as winter looms, although the project is not slated to be fully completed before early next year.
“The Assembly’s been aware of this. We’ve been briefing the Assembly for months on the project itself so none of this should be a surprise,” said Lance Wilber, now the city’s director of community development, overseeing public works.
At Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, Rivera and Vice Chair Chris Constant pleaded with other members not to kill the project that night and to postpone it instead, and allow the mayor’s administration a last chance before the Assembly decides whether to continue funding the shelter.
Rivera said the city needs more low-barrier shelter beds and navigation services, and that he still believes in a version of the project. “I have, as have other members of this body, done everything that we can to try and keep this project alive. Even if it is probably limping to its grave,” he said.
Bronson’s allies on the Assembly urged the members to move the project forward, citing concerns over ballooning construction costs during winter — and that it’s already underway.
“We have a guaranteed path to get 150 beds, a purpose-built facility, a navigation center on the market by roughly November from what I’ve heard,” Assembly member Randy Sulte said. “... Instead, we’re going to take this political football and shove it down the mayor’s throat, and we truly don’t give a rat’s ass about the homeless.”
Complications with the Golden Lion
The East Anchorage shelter project has been championed by Bronson and frequently disputed by members of the Assembly’s majority in a contentious back-and-forth that has lasted for more than a year.
Deepening the political tangle, the East Anchorage shelter’s fate has been directly connected to a city-owned Midtown hotel, the Golden Lion. The Assembly in April attached a caveat to $6.2 million in funding it set aside for the navigation center and shelter. Members made the money contingent on a firm written commitment and good-faith effort from Bronson to convert the former Golden Lion Hotel into a substance misuse treatment center.
But the mayor has long said he would not use the Golden Lion for that purpose — it was an issue he campaigned on when running for office, and he told supporters he would sell the building. Last week, Bronson announced he is not considering a treatment facility in the building because a planned $100 million state transportation project at the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue, which is not yet funded, would impact the property and has a “high likelihood” of a “total take of the property.”
Assembly members expressed suspicion over the state’s announcement and its timing, and said they would be investigating the issue. At Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly member Meg Zaletel said they would be digging into those questions at an AMATS Policy Committee meeting later this month.
There is wide support among Assembly members to use the Golden Lion as an emergency shelter for homeless residents this winter, including support from a few members generally aligned with the Bronson administration.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly members pushed Bronson to follow through on the Golden Lion stipulations and other commitments on the project they say he has not met — or else, some members say, Bronson will not be able to muster enough votes and the Assembly will kill the project.
The Golden Lion cost the city about $9 million and was purchased under the administration of former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson with the intention to convert it into a substance misuse treatment facility.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, Bronson referred to a letter from the state about the transportation project and indicated more openness to finding a use for the building.
“I’m open to meeting with the Anchorage Assembly to discuss what we’re going to do in the short and long term considering that — concerning that parcel of land, and with setting up a treatment facility,” Bronson said.
Administration officials, including the city’s current top attorney, said the city has already made “good faith commitments” to the contractor, Roger Hickel Construction, and that without the funds, the city will not be able to pay the company’s invoices.
At Tuesday’s meeting, an attorney for the city said the project has already “incurred substantial costs” and raised the possibility of litigation if the Assembly didn’t approve the increased contract amount.
That shocked several Assembly members, including Rivera.
“It’s appalling to think that we have to vote ‘yes’ on this or that we’re gonna get sued,” Rivera said. “And that is, again, ridiculous that you would put the elected representatives of the people in a corner like that and expect us to vote ‘yes.’ ”
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, said, “we’ve been saying for months the mayor is not fulfilling his end of the bargain here. They’re illegally accessing or illegally committing funds in violation of what we passed back in April. So here we are. There hasn’t been a good-faith effort to turn on the Golden Lion, and we should not pass these funds.”
‘It’s going to be the end of the question. One way or another’
The East Anchorage shelter was initially conceived by Bronson last summer, who proposed an up to 1,000-bed facility — a plan the Assembly quickly shot down.
Members later agreed to a much smaller version of the project at 150 beds as one of five parts of a former city plan to stand down its COVID-19-era emergency mass care operations at the Sullivan Arena and non-congregate shelters, and expand longer-term homelessness services in Anchorage. The Bronson administration has since closed all those facilities, save one shelter in a downtown hotel.
On Tuesday, at the request of Eagle River Assembly member Kevin Cross, the administration agreed to participate in a work session to potentially answer the Assembly’s requests for more information on the East Anchorage shelter.
Rivera said Wednesday that he plans to send questions to the mayor’s office ahead of that meeting. The Assembly will then again take up the funding question at an Assembly meeting on Oct. 25.
Rivera said he suspects when that meeting is held in October, “there will be one of two things that happens: Either a ‘yes’ vote, or a ‘no’ vote.”
“I think the body just wants to come to a close on this question,” Rivera said. “... It is going to be the end of the question. One way or another.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported that Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has long said he is against converting the former Golden Lion into a substance misuse treatment center. That is accurate. However, a spokesman for the mayor on Thursday clarified the mayor has expressed willingness to “talk about the short and long term use of the Golden Lion.”