Berkowitz ready to move on housing, port

Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

New Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is ready to make things happen when it comes to his city’s housing woes.

The city needs to capitalize on all the resources it has, as well as what potential development partners can offer, he said in a July 17 interview with the Journal.

Focusing on issues government can impact such as land availability and permitting and not those determined by external forces — costs of labor and building materials — seems obvious, but can be clouded by layered issues.

Anchorage’s housing problem is a simple economic problem of short supply generating high demand and cost, Berkowitz said. But the solution is far from straightforward.

Rental vacancy in the city has been in the 3 percent range for several years; real estate experts typically consider 5 percent vacancy to be a healthy market. At the same time, overall housing costs are some of the highest in the country among cities of comparable size with Anchorage.

Berkowitz announced the appointment of former Republican Anchorage mayoral candidate Andrew Halcro to lead the Anchorage Community Development Authority July 7.

“We’re going to be very aggressive with how we use the Anchorage Community Development Authority,” he said. “I’ve talked with Andrew Halcro significantly and we have a shared goal to make sure we address the housing situation.”

At the end of the 2014 calendar year, ACDA held more than $12 million in unrestricted assets. However, effectively using the authority’s position will require more than just accessing its funds, Berkowitz said. It’s the authority’s ability to engage in financing options, as well as possibly working with the municipality’s Heritage Land Bank to transfer city-owned property into the right hands for development, he said.

“We’ve got to improve deal flow if we’re going to see any kind of development,” Berkowitz said.

The Heritage Land Bank, a division under the municipality’s Real Estate Department, manages roughly 10,000 acres of city property spread out across the municipality. About half of the property is in the Girdwood Valley.

Berkowitz said his goal is to engage private developers in all sorts of public-private partnerships to find ways to ease utility infrastructure costs, for example, which are often cited by real estate and building experts as a major impediment to housing developments in Anchorage.

In recent years Anchorage Community Development Authority staff tasked with review building plans and permit applications have been simply overwhelmed with work as manpower has been cut, and that has led to paperwork bottlenecks that can discourage prospective developers, according to Berkowitz. A long-awaited transition to a computerized system should help ease the burden and is nearly complete.

He said the often-contentious Title 21 zoning regulation rewrite has limited what city officials can do to work with builders.

“What’s happened here is the classic problem — when you take away discretion from people who are charged with enforcement (of land-use requirements), then you get very rule-bound,” Berkowitz said. “We’ve got to get to a situation where the folks charged with enforcement are more in a situation of trying to help people through the process rather than simply being a toggle that says ‘yes, your in compliance; no you’re not.’”

Adequately tackling the housing issue will also require further evaluating Anchorage’s transportation system and how it fits what neighborhoods demand, whether that is trail accessibility or advancing public transportation to meet higher density living. That will mean truly listening to what the city’s residents want, he said.

“The goal is to look out across Downtown in a couple years and not see all this surface parking,” Berkowitz said. “The goal is to make sure we have mixed-use, that there’s housing across Anchorage, that we’ve rehabilitated parts of the city that have languished for too long. We can’t do that by continuing to do what we’ve done.”

Less than a month into his term, Berkowitz announced the opening of permanent housing July 21 for chronic homeless residents and those struggling with mental disorders. The city leveraged $200,000 to support more than $1.5 million in state and federal funding to open 56 units at Safe Harbor Inn in Downtown Anchorage. The units had previously been used for transitional housing with limited assistance for those in-need who used the resource.

Anchorage Port

On the city’s biggest construction burden, the Port of Anchorage, Berkowitz said he is focused on making immediate fixes to make sure current operations continue to run smoothly.

That means getting Phase 1 of the six-phase Anchorage Port Modernization Project conceptual design built, and entails digging up a portion of the backlands created on the north end of the port during the first iteration of construction. Doing so would stabilize the waterfront and alleviate some silting issues that have arisen as the backlands that jut out from the incomplete project disrupt current flow along the face of the docks.

The $60 million Phase 1 also includes moving the port administration office off the docks where it is now located and building a new multi-purpose terminal on the south end of the facility. The full plan with four new terminals is projected to cost the city another $485 million, leaving Anchorage to find another $350 million beyond the roughly $130 million it has left from the first Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project.

That could make the new design a very long-term project, according to the mayor.

Port customers have said despite the fact that the facility runs well now it is in need of significant upgrades.

Berkowitz said he plans to discuss specifics of what is needed at the port with its director Steve Ribuffo.

The port, a self-sustaining day-to-day business owned by the city, currently spends more than $1 million per year patching and maintaining its corroding 54-year old pile dock.

The mayor said he expects to collect a suite of financing mechanisms with contributions from the city, state and federal governments for the full scope of the modernization plan, because the port is the offload point for 85 percent of the goods that enter mainland Alaska. Further, it is of national importance as a strategic military port — the primary route out for deployed troops and equipment.

“It’s unfair to expect Anchorage to shoulder the entire burden for a port that serves the state and the United States,” Berkowitz said. “We’re the beneficiary of geography given this is where the port is, but the fact that the port is the portal to the rest of the state and serves important national interests means that we should not be the only ones who shoulder the fiscal responsibility to see that it’s developed, modernized.”

How willing the state and federal governments are to spend more money on a project that has already cost more than $300 million and yielded very little remains to be seen.

Berkowitz added that he has a very good working relationship with Gov. Bill Walker and that the governor and legislative leaders understand the situation the city is in regarding port funding.

Further, he said the city is confident in its lawsuit against the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, the Department of Transportation agency first in charge of the problem project, and that could produce a portion of the funding for the new plan.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 3:13pm