It isn't easy to be an eyesore in Midtown Anchorage among the acres of parking lots, saggy trailer courts and dated strip malls. But the old Northern Lights Hotel probably qualifies.
It's been closed down for almost a decade now, sitting empty on a weedy lot on a block between Northern Lights and Benson, ringed in beat-up chain-link. Most of its windows have been broken out and boarded up. Periodically it gets painted by graffiti artists. Its old sign has faded. Bird doo streaks its outsides. For the last few years I've been hearing about it from readers. Is it going to open back up? Get torn down? Is it true that squatters live inside? Is it haunted?
I wondered myself: How can a building just rot away for years? Is that good for the city?
When I looked into it, I found that the hotel was closed by the Anchorage Fire Department in 2002 because of more than 60 fire code violations, according to old newspaper stories. At the time it was owned by Mike Cusack Jr., who also owned the Anchorage Aces hockey team. One of the city's first brew-pubs sat on the ground floor. Many of the hockey players were living in the hotel at the time it closed. Though there were promises it would reopen, Cusack had a history of tax trouble and filed for bankruptcy protection. The hotel had to be sold to satisfy his creditors. (Around the same time, the Aces went up for auction on eBay.)
The hotel had problems with financial and fire issues from the beginning. It was built in 1965 as the Gold Rush Motor Lodge. In 1970, an arson fire killed five guests, which might account for the ghost stories. It was rebuilt the same year as the building that stands there now. When it opened, newspaper stories mentioned it was the first hotel in the city to offer color television. There were more fires. Eventually it went bankrupt. It became a Ramada Inn. Cusack took over in 1994.
Emerald Investments, one of at least a dozen small companies owned by members of the Chang/Fang family, bought the building in the mid-2000s. That family also owns the big new office building at 188 W. Northern Lights and the vacant Fourth Avenue Theater downtown, as well as at least 10 other buildings and other parcels in the city. They pay at least $1.15 million a year in property taxes.
The hotel land is valued by the city at just over $2 million. The building is valued at $23,000. Emerald doesn't have any plans for the hotel right now, according to Derrick Chang, a spokesman for the company. He said the city has applied pressure to demolish it.
Demolition costs $1 million, he said. That's a lot of money, too. Some cities might give a developer a tax credit or other incentive to demolish a derelict building in the interest of improving the neighborhood. That hasn't happened in Anchorage, he said. The previous administration was more friendly to development than this one, he said. He's keeping the building secure. As long as he does that, he isn't breaking any rules. His company can take its time to find a project that fits the parcel. The market for that kind of thing now is soft, Chang said.
"We are responsible landowners," he said. "We want to make sure the building is safe and secure."
The Northern Lights Hotel was closed by the Anchorage Fire Department in 2002 because of more than 60 fire code violations.
The building does have fresh boards on its windows. Graffiti was painted over recently. But what Chang didn't mention was that just a few months ago, that wasn't the case. In March, the Anchorage Fire Department and the Anchorage Police Department visited the building on a report of an open window in an upper floor with a cooler sitting in it, evidence of squatters. There was also a hole in the fence. And the back door had been kicked in.
When James Gray, the city's acting fire marshal showed up, the police officer, Kevin Mitchell, told him that barring an emergency situation, he wouldn't go into the building without a hazmat suit. There was a time when APD used the vacant hotel for SWAT team practice. Mitchell said he knew that water in the basement caused significant mold. Birds had gotten in and some had died in there. There was also human feces from squatters, he told Gray.
"The word he used was 'atrocious,' " said Anita Shell, APD spokeswoman.
A couple of property managers finally made a quick trip through. They said they saw evidence that people had recently been sleeping there. Gray worried that squatters would start a fire inside. Without sprinklers or an alarm system, it could be dangerous for firefighters to get in and rescue them. Plus the building owners were obligated to keep people out. If there were people inside, Emerald was violating its agreement with the city.