A controversial deal to develop, subdivide and sell about 150 residential lots in Girdwood is back.
The Turnagain Arm mountain resort town is desperately in need of worker housing. Last week, the Anchorage Assembly approved the public-private partnership deal known as Holtan Hills. It would open up about 60 acres of undeveloped, city-owned land. That’s after the Assembly had postponed voting on the deal in February.
Many Girdwood locals still fear the deal squandered an opportunity to better address the resort community’s workforce housing crisis. Holtan Hills’ opponents say it will result in homes too expensive for most people who actually live in Girdwood.
The first of three phases in the Holtan Hills deal covers about 16 acres of land. Before the developer, CY Investments, can hire a general contractor to start building roads and utility infrastructure, there are more public approvals to navigate: planning and zoning and subdividing individual lots. CY has until July of 2025 to get that done.
The early plans call for 52 lots of various sizes for a mixed-density neighborhood that branches off of Hightower Road, which currently ends at Girdwood Elementary School. CY Investments intends to eventually sell the empty, shovel-ready lots to builders. Then half the profits will go to the city and half to CY Investments.
In Phase 1, the city must give up some of its earnings to set aside at least one multi-family lot that can accommodate at least eight units – likely condos – to hand over to a Girdwood housing nonprofit.
The deal also requires the developer to write homeowners’ association bylaws that severely limit short-term rentals.
And now, the controversy:
Girdwood is a mountain resort community within the boundaries of Anchorage and it needs housing for its workforce. But for this type of city-owned land, city code requires that it be sold at market rates, which are high in Girdwood, likely pricing out everyone but institutional buyers and the wealthy.
“This isn’t to demonize second homeowners or vacation homeowners,” said Mike Edgington, a member of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors. “They’re an important part of the community. The question here is balance. In Girdwood, over half of our housing are those empty homes, i.e. not used as primary residences by anyone. In fact, Girdwood doesn’t really have a housing crisis – it has an occupied housing crisis.”
Edgington was one of more than 20 people who spoke in the public hearing last week leading up to the latest Assembly vote. Based on city property records, Edgington told the Assembly that 38 homes were built in Girdwood over the last two years. He said that’s a rate many times faster than the rest of Anchorage.
“Therefore Girdwood’s housing crisis must be getting better, right?” he continued. “Well, spoiler alert, it’s getting worse.”
The current, median assessed value of those new Girdwood homes is $940,000, Edgington said, pointing out that, by definition, that means half are valued higher than that.
Only seven of them are used as primary residences, he said, which means that as Girdwood built more homes, the town’s overall ratio of homes that locals actually live in got even lower.
Edgington asked the Assembly to postpone its vote until after local, long-term plans for the area are updated. He said a draft is expected at the end of February.
Dozens of others weighed in at past public hearings on the Holtan Hills deal, largely in opposition.
Some of the testimony was tainted, though. The Alaska Landmine has reported that some key figures in the anti-Holtan Hills campaign – which featured signs that said “Halt Holtan Hills” – rallied opposition by spreading misinformation, misrepresenting their own personal financial interests, and vilifying the dealmakers with unsubstantiated accusations of corruption.
Last February, the Assembly postponed indefinitely a similar version of the deal, in part because of instability in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration.
Now, Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said, the deal is ripe, because the city has since hired a third-party consultant to see it through.
Assembly member Zac Johnson, whose district covers Girdwood, unsuccessfully tried to delay the vote again.
“I think the message resoundingly has been, ‘Not yet, not ready with this project,’ he said. “We had a strong voice outpouring from the community asking for more time. We’ve had the elected body of Girdwood, the Board of Supervisors, asking for more time.”
Zaletel said the revised deal did address many local concerns, and that the lots set aside for a Girdwood housing nonprofit are meaningful.
“If we continually push and wait and wait and let perfect become the enemy of good and still beneficial, we’ll never do anything,” she said. “The perfect deal doesn’t exist.”
“If we say that there’s housing urgency today, why do we wait to tomorrow?” Zaletel said.
The Anchorage Assembly approved the Holtan Hills deal in a 9-3 vote at its Jan. 24 meeting. Johnson, along with members Karen Bronga and Kameron Perez-Verdia, voted no.
Connie Yoshimura, the “CY” of CY Investments, said it would be impossible to build affordable housing in Girdwood without subsidies. But she said she’s committed to market rate, entry-level homes. The zoning she’s seeking for the project allows for more homes than usual for the acreage, with a mix of single-family homes, townhomes and condos.
“Mixed density eliminates economic segregation,” Yoshimura said. “And that’s what I saw when I looked at Girdwood, that’s what was important to me.”
Yoshimura first submitted a Holtan Hills proposal to the city through a competitive process in 2021.
“I never thought I would be standing here today after a three-year process, having to go through all of this, really, quite frankly,” she said.
For now, the Holtan Hills project is on to Phase 1. If it’s successful, then CY Investments can proceed to the zoning and platting processes for Phase 2, and so on with Phase 3 without coming back to the Assembly.