EDITORIAL: Was spiking the Holtan Hills development the right call?

After a year of acrimonious back-and-forth over what would have been the biggest new housing development in Girdwood in decades, the proposed Holtan Hills project met its end on Valentine’s Day. That result matched much of the public testimony about the plan, which would have added more than 100 homes in a community that all sides agree is desperately in need of more places to live. But because of misgivings about the particulars — for some residents, concerns the development’s homes wouldn’t be affordable for Girdwood workers, and for Assembly members, a claimed mistrust of Mayor Dave Bronson and his administration — it’s back to the drawing board for all involved.

Although the concerns of those opposed aren’t without merit, the death of the Holtan Hills plan was the wrong action for the Assembly to take and sends a very different message than those opposed to it say they intended.

The Assembly vote was notable in that it had both a different vote split — 7-5 against the plan — and a fracturing of the usually resolute bloc of left-leaning members who nearly always find themselves philosophically aligned on municipal projects. Testimony from Assembly members before the vote was also unusually frank, a reflection of the ugly fight over the project that smoldered for more than a year since the Holtan Hills proposal was rolled out publicly. In the end, those who voted against the project somehow managed to blame Bronson and his administration for their votes — a convenient and unrealistic excuse.

The purported concern that the city administration would bungle the project is a disingenuous stance. Although the Heritage Land Bank director and real estate director positions for the municipality are unfilled, there wasn’t the kind of risk with Holtan Hills that there was with the homeless navigation center, where the mayor’s office directly intervened to improperly commit millions of dollars without Assembly approval. The people in municipal government who were going to be doing the work to move Holtan Hills along weren’t mayor’s office stooges, they are the “long-standing dedicated municipal employees” whom Assembly members said they trusted before voting to deep-six the project. The reality is that the development would have been executed by experienced, competent private-sector developers. Although Bronson has given the Assembly and the public ample reason to distrust him, it’s disappointing that some Assembly members used public enmity for him to try and credibly depart from their claimed desire to see more housing in Girdwood. If there were truly misgivings about mayoral tampering in the project, the Assembly could have easily added stipulations that would have required their oversight in controversial details or spending.

With Holtan Hills no longer moving forward, some Assembly members and interested parties in the community are bullish on Girdwood’s ability to work out a better plan. But while we wish we shared their optimism, it’s hard to see those efforts succeeding where Holtan Hills failed, given the tenor of much of the backlash to the project.

The ugly truth is that the not-in-my-backyard mindset was and continues to be a major obstacle to new housing in Girdwood, and the Assembly caved to accommodate it. Anyone who has spent time watching real estate in the community can see it, plain as day. As of Friday morning, there were exactly three houses listed on Zillow for sale in Girdwood, with the cheapest of the three listed at $629,000 — more than $100,000 steeper than the projected cost of the entry-level Holtan Hills units would have been. But if you hop on AirBnB, all of a sudden there are places to stay everywhere in Girdwood, with more than 100 homes listed as short-term rentals. There’s nothing intrinsically unusual about having plenty of short-term rentals in a resort town, of course — but it does expose a fundamental hypocrisy of those who fought tooth-and-nail against adding more housing in the community while personally profiting from the extraordinarily tight housing market in a town where many aren’t even physically present for much of the time. (By comparison, there were 362 homes listed on Zillow and 922 on AirBnB in the Anchorage bowl, a ratio of roughly 1:3 that shows how wild Girdwood’s 1:33 skew is.) Holtan Hills would have increased the housing supply, increasing the tax base and lowering property taxes. It wouldn’t have been a panacea, but it would have eased pressure on the housing market and been a good first step toward finding a long-term path to more affordable housing for local workers. Instead, the Assembly closed the door, protecting the astronomically high property values of some existing residents.

If the Assembly and Girdwood residents want to prove they’re serious about adding new housing — and we hope they are — they’d better move quickly, be transparent with developers about what they want and not get bogged down looking for a unicorn development that somehow fixes all of the community’s needs. And they should be honest about their objections to any future developments. Unless there are clear commitments to making a project work, it’s hard to see a developer committing to the kind of preparation and effort that went into Holtan Hills only for the plan to fall prey to NIMBY-ism and political turf wars.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.