The Municipality of Anchorage and a team of developers are working together to convert a mile-long stretch of rolling forest in Girdwood into what could become the largest housing development the community has seen in decades.
Connie Yoshimura, a longtime Anchorage residential land developer and real estate agent who is leading the Holtan Hills project, says it could help address a severe housing crunch in the eclectic ski town between Alyeska Resort and Cook Inlet.
While everyone agrees new housing is sorely needed in Girdwood, some residents are concerned the effort could result in too many homes too quickly. Since the project will sell lots to individuals or developers at market value, there’s also skepticism that it will result in housing that many local workers can afford.
Others say they like that the project will bring a diverse mix of housing, and it could potentially temper rising housing and rent costs.
“We’re conflicted,” Frans Weits, owner of Jack Sprat restaurant, said of his household. “Addressing housing in Girdwood is a good thing. But what we need most is affordable housing. They’re saying they will make this as affordable as possible, but that won’t solve the housing crisis in Girdwood.”
As it is, many employees at the resort, school and stores often commute from Anchorage because of the high housing costs, residents say, and some people even live in converted buses or camp in the woods.
Yoshimura and city officials say the development and a growing population could draw much-needed resources to the town, such as a new grocery store.
Girdwood, though still part of Anchorage, maintains its own identity and pays for services such as roads, police and fire. The project could lead to a larger local tax base to help pay for those services, city officials say.
Yoshimura, owner and broker at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Alaska Realty, says the plan could bring more than 100 homes, condominiums and townhouses to an area near Glacier Creek and the Iditarod National Historic Trail, northwest of the ski resort. The development would be built in three phases, each phase lasting perhaps two years, she said.
Holtan Hills — named for Howard Holtan, who died in 2007 and was municipal director of project management and engineering and a beloved Alyeska Mighty Mites ski coach — is in its preliminary stages and will face extensive public review before it can be developed, Yoshimura said
Details, such as the specific size of the development, have yet to be determined. The topography, land drainage and potential road grade are just some of the aspects that need to be considered, she said.
“We are on step nine of about 100 steps,” she said.
A ‘totally unusual’ idea
The project will include some sites for large luxury homes, but also many smaller sites for smaller dwellings, providing a range of price points, Yoshimura said.
“We are creating a community that will reflect what I consider is the best of Girdwood,” Yoshimura said at the online community meeting in December.
Yoshimura’s company, CY Investments, is partnering with Seth Andersen, a structural engineer and developer who built a string of compact homes near downtown Anchorage as a step toward addressing housing shortages there. The third partner is Pomeroy Property Development, an affiliate of Pomeroy Lodging, the owner of Alyeska Resort.
In one important first step, the city will extend utilities to the edge of the proposed development. The groundbreaking for that might start in summer 2023, Yoshimura said. The development team will pay to extend the utilities within the site, according to the proposal.
Lots will be sold at market prices. The individuals and developers who buy them will build the housing under homeowner association guidelines intended to protect trees and the Iditarod trail, and ensure attractive neighborhoods.
Yoshimura said she is looking into a plan to give Girdwood residents the first option to buy the lots. She said a homeowners association for condominiums can ensure a strong level of owner occupancy, so those residents live in Girdwood.
A separate project in the development proposal, currently getting less attention, includes plans by Pomeroy to purchase acreage from the municipality’s Heritage Land Bank and develop a mixed-use residential and commercial project near the base of the ski mountain that could add an additional 70 units for housing. The area is physically separate, and that project is further behind in planning than Holtan Hills. It will go through a separate approval process.
Altogether, the proposed development is one of the most complex efforts pursued in the Anchorage area in decades, people involved in the project say.
One unique aspect of the project is that the development team is partnering with the Heritage Land Bank, which is a city agency that manages more than 10,000 acres of the municipality’s uncommitted land. More than half of that land is in Girdwood and along Turnagain Arm.
The land bank will provide the land at the Holtan Hills project and split profits 50-50 with the development partnership.
The land bank will be able to set requirements for the development, and if they aren’t met, the land will revert back to the land bank, said Adam Trombley, head of the municipal Office of Economic and Community Development.
Assembly member John Weddleton, who represents South Anchorage and Girdwood, said he is optimistic about Holtan Hills and the variety of housing it could bring to the town.
Land there is so expensive that it’s not profitable for developers to build smaller, more affordable homes, he said. But in this case, the city has the leverage of owning the land and can direct the developer to provide an array of housing types, including some for the local workforce, he said.
“It’s a real different way of developing,” Weddleton said. “Instead of just selling land and saying, ‘go build on it,’ you’re doing it through a request for proposal process — ‘tell us what you would do and provide these specific things.’ And then the city makes money by splitting the profits on the sales, which is totally unusual.”
Home prices skyrocket, and ‘what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked’
Residents in Girdwood tend to agree on the need for housing. Many say they are keeping an open mind about the project.
With its limited land and strong demand for vacation homes, the community has long faced a tight housing market.
Prices for single-family homes have skyrocketed to well above $600,000 on average the last two years, a more than 50% markup from Anchorage prices, realtors say.
Rents have also soared as owners have increasingly turned their homes into vacation rentals, using Airbnb and other online platforms. That has meant fewer long-term rentals.
Mike Edgington — co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, which oversees road, fire and other local services — said this could result in the biggest housing project in Girdwood since at least the early 1990s.
He hopes that Holtan Hills, if done properly, addresses many housing needs in the town.
“I think it’s aligned with community goals well, and I think it could be very successful, but there are a lot of details we don’t know yet,” he said.
As the need for housing in Girdwood has grown more acute over the last few years, Weddleton said it’s clear the city needs to try a new approach to the problem.
“Is this a perfect deal? I don’t know if I could say that. Is it bad? Well, what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” Weddleton said. “We need more housing throughout Anchorage, and certainly in Girdwood. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, you should try something different.”
‘We need more affordable housing’
Still, with the COVID-19 pandemic further pushing up construction prices, many residents say they fear Girdwood residents will be priced out of the new homes by out-of-town residents.
The employee shortage in Girdwood existed before the pandemic, but it’s worse now, said Nicole Hugunin, manager at The Grind.
The Girdwood coffee shop has been trying to add workers for a long time but can’t, because it’s too expensive to live there, Hugunin said. The lack of local workers limits hours when businesses can open, she said.
“We need more affordable housing, and from what I understand, this project won’t technically be lower-income, so that doesn’t really help what’s going on,” Hugunin said.
Yoshimura said affordable housing is possible if developers who buy the land include nonprofit housing agencies.
Shelley Rowton, the land bank’s land management officer, said at the meeting that new housing can create a “trickle-down” benefit that frees up lower-priced housing as some residents move into new houses.
“It could provide an opportunity for some in the community to move up,” she said.
‘Community led and community driven’
Some residents are concerned about what they’re seeing so far, and they feel like their voices aren’t being heard, said Girdwood resident Krystal Hoke.
Hoke, a real estate agent, said she wants to see the Holtan Hills land developed. But any project should be “community led and community driven,” she said.
Early last year, Hoke helped create the Girdwood Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that urged the land bank to open up land for development that was smaller, slower and more sustainable than Holtan Hills, she said.
In April, the land bank publicly sought bids for development proposals. Yoshimura’s plan was selected, over another from Spinell Homes.
Hoke said she is worried Holtan Hills could overcrowd the school and add pressure to the small grocery store that’s often out of products.
Hoke said it’s clear that developers and the land bank will benefit from the project.
“What exactly is Girdwood getting out of allowing new development to occur?” she asked at the December meeting.
Trombley said the project could add to the local tax base that pays for Girdwood’s roads and drainage services, police, fire and parks. Additional residents could lead to new businesses or larger stores, he said.
‘We can have a plan that’s appropriate to Girdwood’
Some Girdwood residents say they’re also concerned by what they see as a lack of transparency in the process so far.
Some information, such as proposed development costs and specific details about the size of the project, are redacted from the development team’s proposal.
Grace Pleasants, a longtime Girdwood resident and local developer, said the town needs more diversified housing. But because some key information hasn’t been released to the public, such as the project’s total acreage, what types of housing and how much of each type of housing it will include, and because it’s not clear whether residents and workers will be able to afford the housing, Pleasants said she doesn’t know whether she can support the project.
“When you’re dealing with public disposal of public lands, you should have even more transparency,” Pleasants said. “I don’t need to know who your banker is, and I don’t need to know how much money they’re bringing to the table. But I definitely need to know what the project looks like. And we definitely need to know how it’s going to impact the community.”
In a recent interview in her Anchorage office, Yoshimura said it’s difficult to know what the final plan will look like.
She said Holtan Hills needs to obtain easements and drainage data, and study land characteristics. A rezoning process will be required.
Wetlands will prevent construction in some areas, limiting buildable land to maybe 50 or 70 acres, Yoshimura said.
“We have wetlands, we have topography challenges, because you know the city won’t allow us to put in a road or a driveway that has a grade of more than 10%,” Yoshimura said.
“Currently, we’re just beginning to work through some of those issues,” she said.
Those and other characteristics will need to be reviewed to determine where lots can go, and to create a master plan that can be presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission, she said.
Trombley said some details simply aren’t available yet, and it wouldn’t be fair to the public to provide information that will change in the future.
Rising construction costs are among the uncertainties that make it difficult to provide information about future prices, he said.
Still, Yoshimura said she’s spoken at numerous Girdwood community meetings in recent months to share information about the proposal.
Yoshimura and Trombley declined to provide details about the potential costs and value of the project that were laid out in the proposal.
Yoshimura said the land bank asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the project, though she has released many details about it in meetings with the Girdwood community.
Trombley said it’s typical to not disclose some details of real estate deals until they’ve closed. The city has not completed development or sales agreements for the project.
There will be numerous opportunities for the public to weigh in going forward, Trombley said. The developer team will have to write an area master plan for Holtan Hills, and the Anchorage Assembly will also weigh in on the development — two additional processes that will require public input, Trombley said.
Girdwood’s views will be critical in the process, Yoshimura said.
“If they want more housing, we’re here to do that,” Yoshimura said. “We can have a plan that’s appropriate to Girdwood. But if they don’t want it, the land is still there. It really is up to them.”