Alexandria House Project Hits Permitting Snags

Plans to turn an old bar into a way to raise money for emergency housing in Unalaska are slowing down. That’s after the city discovered that the nonprofit Alexandria House had worked on the project all year without a building permit.

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The old Elbow Room has gotten a major makeover since Pastor John Honan started working on it earlier this year. He’s had volunteers install new floorboards, wall frames and windows, and there’s still more to do:

“So I need my sliding glass door, I’ve got that ordered, that has to go in,” he says. “The siding has to be completed. The roof is mostly done.”

The attached building at left was meant to be a bedroom for the upstairs apartment at the old Elbow Room -- but city officials say that's not what they agreed to. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
The attached building at left was meant to be a bedroom for the upstairs apartment at the old Elbow Room — but city officials say that’s not what they agreed to. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

When it’s all finished, he’ll rent it out as an apartment and commercial space. The revenue will help Alexandria House shelter sober, stranded people in hotels and spare rooms all over town.

Unalaska’s planning board approved the project about a year ago. They gave Honan a conditional use permit, which he thought that was all he needed to start building.

But he was supposed to apply for an actual building permit, too. City Engineer Robert Lund says it was part of the conditional use.

“The point of that is to kind of get things to a point where the owner’s been formally notified and they can say, ‘Well no, I’m just doing siding or roofing, do I need a permit for that?'” he says. “But it gives us a chance to evaluate that.”

But Lund doesn’t go out looking for projects that might not have the proper permits. The Elbow Room was on his radar, but he didn’t know until this summer that Honan had missed a step.

“I got an email from someone that said, ‘I think they’re doing more than they said they were gonna do.’ Something along those lines,” he says. “So I call that a complaint.”

He told Honan to stop work and apply for the building permit, which Honan did. But the plans he submitted weren’t what the city was expecting.

The conditional use had limited the apartment to the second floor — a holdover from a previous owner that wasn’t revised. This year, though, Honan’s been building what he says is another bedroom in the back of the ground floor, beside the Arctic entry leading upstairs.

He says he still sees the apartment as one single-family unit. But the city isn’t so sure — Lund says the plans don’t make it clear whether the downstairs chunk constitutes a separate dwelling.

“If you were looking at that, and … the bottom floor is clearly an apartment, or really meant for living quarters — soup kitchen, that kind of thing,” he says, laughing, “then I don’t think that would kind of follow in the spirit of what the planning department thought they were giving a permit for.”

Lund’s talking about what he calls the “controversial” aspect of this project. Five years ago, John Honan asked if he could build a homeless shelter in the Elbow Room. Neighbors — and the city — said no.

This time, it’ll be up to whoever lives in the new apartment to decide whether to take in guests for Alexandria House. Barring a nuisance complaint, nothing in city code prohibits that.

So neighbors are still concerned — and the city says Honan will have to go through another public permitting process if he wants to move ahead with the two-floor plan. Honan’s not sure it’s worth the risk.

“If there was an article that came out that said Alexandria House is going for another conditional use….” He sighs. “I don’t know what would happen. I just — I’m thinking it could make more restrictions, maybe.”

His other option is to scrap the downstairs bedroom, and get a building permit for the commercial space and apartment as originally planned. As of now, he hasn’t decided what to do — he’s busy buttoning up the Elbow Room for the winter. The city’s letting him do things like seal the roof and walls through the end of the year.

“So the good news is I’ve got my hands full of work to do,” Honan says. Come January, though, that permission expires — and he’ll have to pick a plan in order to move forward.

Click here to see Honan’s recent building permit application, the city’s stop-work order and the changes they’ve requested to the new plans.