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Anchorage Assembly to again vote on Holtan Hills large-scale housing project in Girdwood

Jan. 20—The Anchorage Assembly is scheduled to vote, once again, on the proposed Holtan Hills housing development in Girdwood, a large-scale project that Assembly members narrowly voted down almost one year ago.

The three-phase plans for the mixed-use residential development could bring more than 100 homes, duplexes, condominiums and townhomes to a 60-acre chunk of municipal land northwest of Alyeska Resort.

An ordinance that would put the land into the hands of a local private development company is set for consideration at the Assembly's Tuesday meeting — although it's possible, given the packed agenda, that a decision won't be made until a later meeting.

The Assembly's vote is a critical step for Holtan Hills: Without the land disposal, the project can't move forward, and it's been stalled for nearly a year.

The proposal last year elicited an outpouring of opposition from residents of the ski resort town, who said it wouldn't do enough to address the community's critical need for housing that is affordable for local workers and families. Many feared that most of Holtan Hills would end up as short-term rentals or purchased for vacation and second homes.

Those concerns and resistance to the project largely haven't changed — if anything, they've deepened, community leaders in Girdwood say.

"Our experience, in the last year, is that nearly all new housing development has resulted in empty homes. So either second homes or full-time short-term rentals," said Mike Edgington, a member of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, who leads its housing and economic stability committee. Of the 18 multifamily units completed in 2023, just one is occupied as a primary residence, he said.

Last year, in response to the concerns, Assembly members added terms to the proposal that would restrict short-term rentals in the development's first phase. The municipality's Heritage Land Bank would also use its share of profits to devote one of the lots to a Girdwood housing trust or community nonprofit for at least eight units of more affordable multifamily housing.

Assembly members will be reconsidering that same version of the proposal.

[Anchorage property values jump 9.2% in latest city assessment]

"While not a perfect solution, this is better than where we started. And the development is needed," said Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel, who revived the proposal during a December meeting. "We can't let perfect become the enemy of good."

During last year's vote, Zaletel and other members who said they wanted to see Holtan Hills move forward instead voted against it, citing concerns that Mayor Dave Bronson's understaffed and unstable administration might bungle the project.

Now, "the pieces are falling in place," Zaletel said. The city is in the process of hiring a contractor to work with the Heritage Land Bank, the developer and Girdwood and monitor the process — a kind of watchdog to ensure all agreement terms are fulfilled, especially the dedication of a multifamily lot to Girdwood, she said.

"We're making this promise to Girdwood. To me, that's very serious," Zaletel said.

Holtan Hills is a profit-splitting agreement between the municipality's Heritage Land Bank and CY Investments, a private development company owned by Anchorage realtor and residential land developer Connie Yoshimura.

"What we're doing is rather innovative for Heritage Land Bank," Zaletel said. "We are taking the profits in this joint venture that Heritage Land Bank will get when these lots are sold for development, and gifting to an appropriate entity, at no cost, a parcel of land with utilities ready, for no less than eight units. We don't just usually do that."

The Assembly has made several other changes recently to try to address Anchorage's housing shortage, high rents and home prices, including by easing zoning and building requirements for small multifamily housing like tri- and fourplexes. It's also funded the conversion of several hotels into low-income housing, particularly for people who were experiencing homelessness. In December, the members approved a housing action plan.

Yoshimura said that in the 11 months since the Assembly's vote on Holtan Hills, the severity of the municipality's housing shortage has become clearer to city leaders and to the public.

"In the industry, we know because we work every day with people that can't find a place to buy or rent," she said. Yoshimura said she favors mixed residential developments because they create neighborhoods with residents across the socioeconomic spectrum — and that's what she intends for Holtan Hills, she said.

But residents in Girdwood say the additional terms won't do enough, if anything at all, to alleviate their housing problems. Nothing guarantees that people won't buy all the properties for second homes, Edgington said.

"Twenty percent of our buildable land will be developed. It will be devoted to this project. And there's no guarantees we get anything out of it, except for one lot for multifamily housing," Edgington said. It's a better deal for Girdwood than the original proposal, but it amounts to "maybe 5% of the projected total housing stock," he said.

[Anchorage Assembly changes zoning and building rules for tri- and fourplexes, aiming to spur more housing]

Girdwood is in the midst of updating its comprehensive plan, including for land use, with a draft expected to be publicly released in the coming months. In that process, an analysis of its housing stock found that more than 16% of its units were listed as short-term rentals in the third quarter of 2023.

A 2022 report found that in the coming two decades, the community needs up to 235 total new and rehabilitated housing units for residential occupancy. That includes 120 for lower-income households, 40 for middle-income and 75 for higher-income, according to the analysis. And to keep up with demand for seasonal and recreational housing, Girdwood will need an additional 243 to 336 housing units.

"I think there's a sort of disingenuousness, or maybe just an ignorance, of saying, 'If you build a house, you're solving housing.' Well, you're not. If you build a house and it's not occupied, it doesn't solve anything," Edgington said.

He added, "The other fundamental problem of this — it isn't private development of private land. It's public land, and we're not making the use of it, as we should, for public benefit. It's really about privatizing it and making it available for private benefit at the cost of the community."

Zaletel looks at the situation differently. Normally, Heritage Land Bank profits go toward the benefit of the entire municipality. In this case, it's using profits to dedicate a lot to Girdwood, she said.

She added, "I hear the concern about short-term rentals and Girdwood, 110%."

"We're literally piloting something new here. Let's see how it goes first," Zaletel said. "It might be, quite frankly, a new tool in our toolbox after all this is said and done. But we'll never know if we don't get to the land disposal."

Yoshimura said she believes the fear that Holtan Hills will end up as mostly empty vacation homes "is unrealistic," she said.

"You can't restrict someone legally from buying a property. But you can create a homeowners association. And I have said, publicly, that I will make a commitment that for the single-family homes, the townhouses, the duplexes, that we would have an owner-occupancy requirement. That if that property was to be leased, it would be for a minimum of 30 days. And that dissuades all of the other type of overnight rentals and short-term rentals," Yoshimura said.

"Fifty-one percent of all the single-family homes built in 2022 occurred in the Mat-Su Valley. Fifty-one percent. The Municipality of Anchorage is way behind the curve in providing housing of all types," Yoshimura said.