The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday killed the controversial Holtan Hills housing project in Girdwood, citing a lack of trust in the administration of Mayor Dave Bronson and a shortage of key executive staff to successfully implement the development.
In a 7-5 decision, the Assembly voted to indefinitely postpone the project following an unusually tense debate. The project would have allowed the city’s Heritage Land Bank to transfer 60 acres of city-owned land to CY Investments, owned by Anchorage realtor and residential land developer Connie Yoshimura.
Plans for the project, in the works for well over a year, called for the creation of more than 100 homes, condominiums and multifamily units northwest of Alyeska Resort. The city and the developer would have split the profits.
Holtan Hills would have been the biggest residential development in Girdwood in decades and was part of the Assembly’s goal to address a housing shortage across the city. The housing crisis in the community of 2,000 is especially severe and has priced many workers and residents out of the market, observers say. Second homes in the ski-resort community and the growth of valuable short-term vacation rentals have been blamed for limiting the available housing stock.
Yoshimura said in an interview Wednesday she’s disappointed the assembly focused on “their own feelings and attitudes towards the administration and really forgot the overarching need for housing in the Municipality of Anchorage.”
“That’s really unfortunate for the community since we have such a desperate need for housing,” she said. “But there are always other opportunities to explore... and I’m committed to helping create housing through my land development activities.”
Many Girdwood residents, and the five-member Girdwood Board of Supervisors, the local governing body, had strongly opposed the project. They’re concerned it would create high-priced housing that many community members won’t be able to afford. The assembly postponed a similar vote on the issue in December, when dozens of people testified against the project, some carrying signs that read “Public lands should equal public benefits.”
Small groups of Girdwood residents showed up Tuesday night. Longtime resident Betsy Connell waved her hands in the air as it became clear the Assembly would reject the project.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “My biggest thing is there’s been no leadership and a lack of people running the Heritage Land Bank, and they’re disposing of the land.”
Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood supervisor board, said Tuesday that the vote was the “right one in the current circumstances.”
“The Girdwood community has been very engaged in the topic of housing, and we look forward to working together with the Assembly and administration to develop housing which benefits the Girdwood community’s most pressing needs,” he said.
Some Assembly members said they felt like Girdwood was part of the problem and that some residents wanted to keep housing values high for personal benefit, a charge that Edgington said doesn’t properly characterize the larger community’s goal of creating housing that’s affordable for residents.
During the vote, several Assembly members praised Yoshimura and Adam Trombley, who has helped lead the project for the administration and took over as Bronson’s chief of staff in September.
But some said they couldn’t put the project in the hands of an administration that faces a number of allegations of wrongdoing, including from former municipal manager Amy Demboski, and one that’s seen a steady departure of key staff. On Monday, that included the resignation of Niki Tshibaka, Anchorage’s chief human resources officer, who blamed an “increasingly toxic, hostile, and demoralizing work environment.”
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who proposed the motion to stop the project, said the administration’s “failed leadership” has contributed to serious shortcomings in top employees. It hasn’t had a land bank director or real estate director for more than a year, among other key openings, she said.
“Firsthand reports of incompetence in the mayor’s office really gives me no faith that this current administration will implement this ordinance in a way that does anything meaningful,” she said.
“I do not believe that Mayor Bronson will work to bring the parties together to see this project to fruition,” she said. “I have serious doubts that Mayor Bronson can even get this project off the ground.”
Bronson was not on hand for the discussion about Holtan Hills, which began late in Tuesday’s meeting. He left the meeting earlier, after the Assembly decided to ask courts to enforce a subpoena of his administration’s records related to the hiring of Bronson’s former Health Department Director Joe Gerace. Gerace resigned in August ahead of the publication of an Alaska Public Media report that found he had fabricated and exaggerated details on his resume.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bronson shot back at the Assembly in a prepared statement about Holtan Hills, saying the members who voted to stop the development ”showed their true colors.”
“Their hypocrisy was on full display: last night the Assembly passed a resolution claiming they support housing in Girdwood and on January 10th they passed a resolution stating they support housing development at all price points in all areas of the city,” Bronson said. “And yet, they killed this project.”
‘We do not have an administration we can trust’
The decision was the second time in recent months that the Assembly had canceled a major project amid concerns over the Bronson administration. In October, members rejected Bronson’s plan to continue funding the construction of a controversial homeless shelter and navigation center off East Tudor Road. The vote came weeks after the revelation that, against city code, Bronson officials authorized millions in construction work over the summer without first getting the required Assembly approval to increase the contract with Roger Hickel Contracting by $4.9 million.
Chair Suzanne LaFrance said Tuesday night that the Assembly had not received all the details about Holtan Hills that it had sought from the administration, including more data about finances and the land.
La France said it’s “really frustrating” to stop the project after “so much work has gone into it and there is such a need for housing across all price points.”
“But it’s not ready to move forward because we do not have an administration we can trust,” she said.
She said she doesn’t believe the administration will properly execute the terms of the deal.
Trombley, during an unsuccessful plea to change Assembly members’ minds, acknowledged Tuesday that the administration had erred with the navigation center.
But Trombley said he had communicated honestly with the Assembly about Holtan Hills, including when he was given directives not to communicate. He asked that the administration not be seen as one “giant entity” and instead that they consider his individual efforts to create more housing.
“Did the administration mess up on that with the navigation center? Yes it did,” he said. “My ask is that you don’t lump it all together.”
But LaFrance replied that while she appreciates Trombley’s efforts, the administration has time after time refused to work with the Assembly.
“It’s not you guys who are here, it’s not the long-standing dedicated municipal employees,” LaFrance said “It’s the mayor — I’m just going to be very frank about that. Because it is a huge disappointment as my colleagues have said, that an issue concerning housing hasn’t been able to move forward.”
Joining Zaletel and LaFrance in stopping the project were Kameron Perez-Verdia, Felix Rivera, Randy Sulte, Robin Dern and Pete Petersen.
Chris Constant, Austin Quinn-Davidson, Joey Sweet, Kevin Cross and Daniel Volland voted “no” on the measure to halt the project.
Opposing Assembly members said the project was badly needed and that the vote could prevent future developers from working with the city. They said it seemed that Girdwood didn’t want new multifamily housing.
Quinn-Davidson blasted Girdwood residents for “aggressive community feedback” that unfairly maligned Yoshimura, the developer. The process has been “so gross” to watch, she said.
“It feels like a lot of the folks providing testimony want this project to solve all the problems of Girdwood, and they want this private developer to roll in and solve all the problems of Girdwood, and they want her to pay for it,” she said. “But that’s not how the world works.”
Echoing Constant, she said some Girdwood residents, without naming names, have fought the project but own multiple short-term rentals and are part of the town’s housing problem.
Constant said the administration has been a “disaster,” but that Yoshimura has a record of getting projects done. He said the Assembly has a duty to provide new housing in Anchorage but was giving in to the “NIMBYs,” or “not in my backyard” opponents.
The Assembly’s rejection would support Girdwood residents sitting in “their third and fourth home in Girdwood while they rent out short-term rentals,” who want to see their property values remain high.
“I am so sad that we are going to watch this project crumble,” he said.
Edgington, with the Girdwood board, said after the vote that most people in Girdwood want to see a variety of new housing built. He acknowledged that some of the louder opponents of Holtan Hills had “conflicts of interest.”
“People are allowed to do that if they’re not elected, but that doesn’t reflect the general sense of the community,” he said. “I own one home, and plenty of people are involved in the process want more housing. That’s the overriding opinion of the community.”
Volland said he shares skepticism with other members about the administration’s ability to pull off the project. But he said he’s also skeptical that residents in Girdwood would have accepted any compromise.
“I think if we don’t move forward, we’re going to have a very chilling impact on any future builders and developers wanting to do work in Girdwood, and we’re going to be right back where we are at, square one, in the future,” he said.