Though tradesmen on Monday were still busy with light upgrades, the public's business has opened at the Legislature's newest office building in Spenard now that lawmakers have vacated their snazzier but controversial downtown digs.

The four-story spot at the Wells Fargo building on the corner of Benson Boulevard and Minnesota Drive in Anchorage — with its totemic-style designs on the facade — is still primarily home to the bank.

But that will begin changing later this year, freeing up space for Anchorage lawmakers and their staff currently stuffed into 1 ½ floors of the building. There's yet another move in store for a Legislature that has become accustomed to temporary office space.

Moving boxes line the glass walls of Rep. Liz Vazquez’ office on Monday, Oct. 17, at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office in Midtown. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)
Moving boxes line the glass walls of Rep. Liz Vazquez’ office on Monday, Oct. 17, at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office in Midtown. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Gone are the automatic trash cans and paper-towel dispensers, and window shades controlled by a button.

But lawmakers, looking on the bright side amid a trickle of contractors and offices piled high with boxes, said the benefit of the $11.85 million acquisition will be savings, improved access and more public parking with about 160 spaces.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, chuckling that lawmakers now had to manually pull down their paper towels in the bathroom, called the building "reasonably priced."

Rep. Mike Chenault settles in to new office space on Monday. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)
Rep. Mike Chenault settles in to new office space on Monday. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

He had supported the purchase of the previous, upgraded building at 716 W. Fourth Ave. for $32.5 million, an option rejected after Gov. Bill Walker in April threatened to veto the acquisition, calling it too costly for cash-strapped Alaska.

But this new, centrally located site will give the public better access, Chenault said. "And they can do their banking all in one stop."

Moving boxes line a back wall around a conference table on Monday at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office in Midtown. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)
Moving boxes line a back wall around a conference table on Monday at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office in Midtown. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Official committee business at the building got underway on Friday with a meeting of the Legislature's Task force on Civics Education.

But lawmakers aren't expected to be finished moving in for more than a year.

The Legislative Information Office and Anchorage lawmakers, with small window offices and staff clustered in cubicles, occupy the second floor, along with a public meeting room similar in size to the one in the downtown LIO that lawmakers just left.

But first-floor space, also with the same configuration of staff cubicles and legislative offices, is being shared with the Wells Fargo branch. Contractors are currently building a separation wall.

That's costing the state about $35,000, said Katrina Matheny, chief of staff to Sen. Gary Stevens.

There are other necessary costs but "nothing major," she said.

The expenses include crash bars needed for exit doors so they can be easily opened in emergencies. Also, carpets had to be cleaned, but plenty of stains remain in the 34-year-old building.

"The old place was too sterile. This place is definitely not sterile," said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, laughing and pointing at stains on the carpet in her office, now shared with a legislative aide.

Boxes are still being moved into the Legislature’s new offices in Anchorage on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Boxes are still being moved into the Legislature’s new offices in Anchorage on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Gardner said she accidentally drove to the previous downtown building on "autopilot" Monday morning before she realized her mistake. This new site, in her district, won't have the downtown-parking challenges that turned constituents off, instead allowing more people to visit lawmakers and attend meetings teleconferenced from Juneau.

"That's what it's all about," Gardner said.

The building was originally owned by Alaska Mutual Bank, which in 1987 merged with United Bank of Alaska to form Alliance Bank, after the banks were stung by bad loans during a previous recession caused by low oil prices.

Now the state is leasing a part of the building back to Wells Fargo, a bonus that's bringing down costs, said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

But the bank in December will vacate the fourth floor, leading to renovations that are expected to be completed around June. Also, Wells Fargo will lease the third floor for 1 ½ years before the Legislature takes over the building, except for the bank's first-floor branch.

The costs of the future renovations aren't yet known, said Matheny.

Sen. Mia Costello, left, shows thank-you notes from elementary school students to staff member Juliana Melin as she stops by her new but temporary office on Monday. Legislators and staffers are set up to work in offices and cubicles on the first and second floors as renovations are carried out in the rest of the building. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)
Sen. Mia Costello, left, shows thank-you notes from elementary school students to staff member Juliana Melin as she stops by her new but temporary office on Monday. Legislators and staffers are set up to work in offices and cubicles on the first and second floors as renovations are carried out in the rest of the building. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The plan is to eliminate the staff cubicles and create offices for lawmakers and aides similar to those at the previous downtown LIO, officials said.

There, Anchorage lawmakers had two-room offices, providing a space for their staff. Some legislative leaders — the House speaker, the Senate president and the chairmen of the Rules committees — had three-room suites.

Stevens' office and the Legislative Affairs Agency are working with the state-contracted Anchorage architectural firm of ECI/Hyer Inc. to come up with a plan, Matheny said. Later, bids will be sought for the renovation.

Meanwhile, the battle over the previous LIO building continues.

The downtown building's owners, Bob Acree and Mark Pfeffer, must decide whether they'll appeal Stevens' recent decision for why the Legislature abandoned the 10-year-lease, Stevens said.

The owners in July filed a legal claim asserting they're owed $37 million because the Legislature failed to follow its own procurement rules when it awarded the landlords their lease.

Stevens said the Legislature in these tight times decided not to fund the lease, ending the contract, and anyway, Superior Court Judge Patrick McKay determined in March the contract was void, he said.

"It will be adequate," Stevens said of the new spot. "It's not perfect yet, but in time it will be just perfect for the Legislature."