Tradesmen and technicians are still touching up the Legislature's new downtown Anchorage building, but the cranes and hardhats are gone and, on Friday, staff were hauling boxes of files and furniture into the space.
The move is beginning just as legislators and aides prepare for the annual migration to Juneau for the next session.
The rented six-story building located at 716 W. 4th Ave. is supposed to be in full operation when the session begins Jan. 20, with teleconferenced hearings emanating from Juneau and on-site information staff in their new first-floor office.
In advance of the formal opening, Rep. Charisse Millett, the House Majority leader and an Anchorage Republican, joined a few aides in leading a media tour of the rebuilt office building.
Developers Mark Pfeffer and Bob Acree, who are also the owners, did the work. They used the shell of the old bank that housed the legislative offices before, and took additional space by subsuming the low-rise Anchor Pub next door. The project ended up with more offices and meeting rooms, including a large assembly room capable of holding all 60 legislators, although not comfortably.
That may be disappointing to Sen. Bill Stoltze, the Chugiak Republican who plans to introduce a bill this session proposing a capital move from Juneau to Anchorage.
But Rep. Mike Hawker, the primary legislator behind the LIO project, said it was never intended to replace Juneau. The remodeled building may house more legislators and staff in greater comfort than the old, but there are offices for only about 30 lawmakers and not nearly the number of committee rooms a full Capitol requires, said Hawker, a Republican from the Anchorage Hillside.
"It's not designed as a capital move in any way, shape, or form," Hawker said by phone after returning from Minnesota with good news from a medical checkup for a previous cancer case. "It was designed to provide sufficient public meeting space for the largest meetings that are typically held in the Legislature."
The tour Millett led showed an impressive glass-skinned office building, fully cabled, with two-room window offices for every Anchorage legislator regardless of party or seniority. Only top legislative leaders -- the House speaker, the Senate president, and the chairmen of the Rules committees -- have three-room suites.
The top four floors each have a "quiet room" for secluded meetings or breastfeeding. The two main elevators have glass walls and ride on the outer edge of the building. The bathrooms have rooms, not stalls, for toilets, the old bar roof is an outdoor second floor deck for smokers, and the two-way conference room has large video screens and window shades that go up and down at the push of a button. Massive steel cross pieces on flexible joints provide strong earthquake protection. The stainless steel bathroom trash cans have lids that open and close automatically (Simple Human brand list price: $200).
The critics of the building are still critical -- not because it's luxurious, as the building's gag name "Taj Mahawker" might imply, but because of the price tag.
"I still have heartache over the costs," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "We've got a huge deficit. The old building, we were paying about $685,000 (annually) for the lease, for utilities, for everything combined. Now it's over $4 million. That's roughly a $3 1/2 million increase a year. I just don't see that as one of the priorities."
Commercial real estate broker Larry Norene said Hawker committed the state to paying two or three times what it could have paid for similar space in another building.
Hawker, who was chairman of the Senate-House Legislative Council when the deal with the developers was struck in 2013, said Norene's assertion "doesn't hold water."
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and the council's incoming chairman, agreed the Legislature could have gotten a better deal elsewhere, but it failed to act when it could and left Hawker with little choice but to negotiate for a renovated building.