About 50 people chanted, waved signs and rang bells –one even rode a unicycle–to greet a group of men who showed up to bid on three properties in the Government Hill neighborhood in order to make room for a bridge that would span the Knik Arm. The Department of Transportation put out a bid to buy the properties in order to demolish them. It is spending anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to get the job done. That’s on top of the roughly $2.5 million the state paid to acquire the properties. About seven men showed to walk through them. They were media shy and wouldn’t answer questions, particularly with the crowd of protesters across the street, imploring them to go away.
The bridge, if it gets built at all, is years away from being complete. It has yet to get necessary federal loans–loans that the state has applied for repeatedly and has been turned down for repeatedly. And even if it gets the loans, it still needs a host of permits, including from the Corp of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Add this to declining state revenues, the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales that migrate through the waters, problematic silt, ice floes, strong tides and a highly active and likely litigious community that’s largely opposed to the bridge, and you’ve got a project that’s likely years in the making, if ever.
Still, three properties are in the process of being razed–one adorable house, one house that could be adorable, and one large hotel that isn’t weathering abandonment well. According to DOT, since the properties were acquired in 20012 and 2013, 37 households and 55 people have been relocated, at a cost to the state of $490,000, not including the price tag on the properties themselves.
Now the properties sit empty, and when they’re razed, large holes will be left in the neighborhood, which many fear will lead to blight. And there appears nothing to be done about it. It’s all the more ironic if you consider that the bridge is being built to open up more land to build houses on, because, if you haven’t heard, there’s a housing crisis in this town.
Let’s not mince words: Welcome to the world of bad government, where an agency, in this case the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, was given the authority to buy the properties prematurely, authority that for years went unchecked, and where state leaders, who could have halted the process until it made more sense, chose to kowtow to the pro-development base.
All told, KABATA has spent about $84 million on the project so far, and the design is only about 35 percent complete.
There was some movement recently. Gov. Sean Parnell introduced a new financing plan, one that cut the private sector out of the project and will likely cost the state even more money. And at long last, and after a long fight, the Legislature decided to wrest away KABATA’s authority and put it in the hands of the DOT, which is now charged with the project and left with the mess.
Like all big government bureaucracies, DOT can be flatfooted, but it tends not to evangelize for and politicize projects, like KABATA did with the bridge, and it’s generally honest and straight with the public.
Democrats and community activists have long been against demolishing the houses, and recently, mayoral candidate Dan Coffey, who is a Republican, has entered the fight. He’s been in touch with Gov. Sean Parnell’s office to suggest that DOT delay the demolition and hire a property management firm to rent out the properties. He has not talked to Parnell about it directly, he said.
Coffey’s no stranger to the situation. He fought to keep the Subway in the area, which was slated to be razed but is now on a month-to-month lease. The Subway, however, was on railroad land, and the railroad wasn’t going to give up the land without a fight.
Coffey’s idea sounds reasonable. It would save the state up to a million dollars in demolition fees, the state would get the rental income, and at least 55 people would have places to live.
However, good ideas in the private sector are not always good ideas in the public sector. . First, someone would have to come up the money to bring the buildings up to local, state and federal code. For the hotel at least, that wouldn’t be cheap. Secondly, DOT is not in the business of residential property management. And if they did get rented, it would have to be on a monthly basis. And if the project were ever to happen, the state would again be charged with relocating all the residents.
In the words of DOT spokesperson Jill Reese, it would be an expensive “rabbit hole.”
The only option that DOT is offering is that someone could buy the house from the demolition crew. Then, however, the new owner would be responsible for moving that house from the land. And, as most know, plots of land are hard to find in Anchorage, which is why there’s a housing crisis and was the impetus for the bridge in the first place.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org