Assembly looks to expand where it can set up homeless shelters

A volunteer helps move gear from the Ben Boeke Ice Arena to the Sullivan Arena on Monday, June 1. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly is looking to expand where homeless shelters can be located within the city. 

An ordinance that is making its way through the assembly would change the city’s code so that homeless and transient shelters could be set up in commercial areas zoned as B-3 under the city’s Title 21 zoning regulations.

Normally, the city’s planning and zoning commission makes changes to zoning codes. 

But at an Anchorage Assembly Committee on Homelessness meeting on Wednesday, Michelle McNulty, director of the city’s planning department said that the administration is pushing to bypass the zoning commission. 

“I think the decision to bypass Planning & Zoning is really just the urgency of the situation. I believe that the COVID situation has highlighted the emergent need to provide and define other shelters,” she said. 

Currently, the lease of the Sullivan Arena as a homeless shelter lasts through the end of July, though many have said they’d like to see that lease extended. Changing the code would allow the city more flexibility to find housing options once the Sullivan closes.  

But even if the ordinance passes, McNulty said that before any shelters could be built, they would still be subject to a conditional use permit that goes through a public hearing process.

Prior to the meeting, some nearby property owners expressed concern over a reported plan for the city to purchase the former Golden Lion Hotel as a substance abuse treatment facility.

McNulty said that a plan to use the Golden Lion as a treatment facility would not require any new ordinance. 

“Currently, any type of substance, substance abuse or treatment center would be allowed. They’re considered rehabilitative care or medical office, both of those uses are already allowed in the B-3 zoning district. So this ordinance will have no effect on any of those uses,” she said. 

The mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that there is “discussion” concerning the purchase of the Golden Lion, but that they “don’t have any additional information to share.”

A flyer distributed by the Geneva Woods Homeowners Association around the neighborhood, which sits adjacent to the Golden Lion, states that having a shelter or treatment center in the area could have a “negative impact on property values and could have other attendant impacts.”

Tod Butler, president of the Tudor Area Community Council, where the Golden Lion is located, said in a phone call on Wednesday that the council hadn’t taken any action on the issue so far.  

Many homeless advocates have argued that increasing capacity and spreading out homeless shelters across town with easy access to services and transportation is the best way keep problems from concentrating in one area. 

The Anchorage Assembly is set to vote on the zoning change in July. 

This story has been updated to more clearly define the changes contained in the proposed ordinance.