Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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Moldering in Midtown

Photos by STEPH ANDERSON / Anchorage Daily NewsPhotos by STEPH ANDERSON / Anchorage Daily News

It isn’t easy to be an eyesore in Midtown Anchorage among the acres of parking lots, saggy trailer courts and dated strip malls. But the old Northern Lights Hotel probably qualifies.

It’s been closed down for almost a decade now, sitting empty on a weedy lot on a block between Northern Lights and Benson, ringed in beat-up chain-link. Most of its windows have been broken out and boarded up. Periodically it gets painted by graffiti artists. Its old sign has faded. Bird doo streaks its outsides. For the last few years I’ve been hearing about it from readers. Is it going to open back up? Get torn down? Is it true that squatters live inside? Is it haunted?

I wondered myself: How can a building just rot away for years? Is that good for the city?

When I looked into it, I found that the hotel was closed by the Anchorage Fire Department in 2002 because of more than 60 fire code violations, according to old newspaper stories. At the time it was owned by Mike Cusack Jr., who also owned the Anchorage Aces hockey team. One of the city’s first brew-pubs sat on the ground floor. Many of the hockey players were living in the hotel at the time it closed. Though there were promises it would reopen, Cusack had a history of tax trouble and filed for bankruptcy protection. The hotel had to be sold to satisfy his creditors. (Around the same time, the Aces went up for auction on eBay.)

The hotel had problems with financial and fire issues from the beginning. It was built in 1965 as the Gold Rush Motor Lodge. In 1970, an arson fire killed five guests, which might account for the ghost stories. It was rebuilt the same year as the building that stands there now. When it opened, newspaper stories mentioned it was the first hotel in the city to offer color television. There were more fires. Eventually it went bankrupt. It became a Ramada Inn. Cusack took over in 1994.

Emerald Investments, one of at least a dozen small companies owned by members of the Chang/Fang family, bought the building in the mid-2000s. That family also owns the big new office building at 188 W. Northern Lights and the vacant Fourth Avenue Theater downtown, as well as at least 10 other buildings and other parcels in the city. They pay at least $1.15 million a year in property taxes.

The hotel land is valued by the city at just over $2 million. The building is valued at $23,000. Emerald doesn’t have any plans for the hotel right now, according to Derrick Chang, a spokesman for the company. He said the city has applied pressure to demolish it.

Demolition costs $1 million, he said. That’s a lot of money, too. Some cities might give a developer a tax credit or other incentive to demolish a derelict building in the interest of improving the neighborhood. That hasn’t happened in Anchorage, he said. The previous administration was more friendly to development than this one, he said. He’s keeping the building secure. As long as he does that, he isn’t breaking any rules. His company can take its time to find a project that fits the parcel. The market for that kind of thing now is soft, Chang said.

“We are responsible landowners,” he said. “We want to make sure the building is safe and secure.”

THE NEIGHBORHOOD: The Northern Lights Hotel was closed by the Anchorage Fire Department in 2002 because of more than 60 fire code violations.THE NEIGHBORHOOD: The Northern Lights Hotel was closed by the Anchorage Fire Department in 2002 because of more than 60 fire code violations.

The building does have fresh boards on its windows. Graffiti was painted over recently. But what Chang didn’t mention was that just a few months ago, that wasn’t the case. In March, the Anchorage Fire Department and the Anchorage Police Department visited the building on a report of an open window in an upper floor with a cooler sitting in it, evidence of squatters. There was also a hole in the fence. And the back door had been kicked in.

When James Gray, the city’s acting fire marshal showed up, the police officer, Kevin Mitchell, told him that barring an emergency situation, he wouldn’t go into the building without a hazmat suit. There was a time when APD used the vacant hotel for SWAT team practice. Mitchell said he knew that water in the basement caused significant mold. Birds had gotten in and some had died in there. There was also human feces from squatters, he told Gray.

“The word he used was 'atrocious,’ ” said Anita Shell, APD spokeswoman.

A couple of property managers finally made a quick trip through. They said they saw evidence that people had recently been sleeping there. Gray worried that squatters would start a fire inside. Without sprinklers or an alarm system, it could be dangerous for firefighters to get in and rescue them. Plus the building owners were obligated to keep people out. If there were people inside, Emerald was violating its agreement with the city.

BOARDED UP: The current owner of the Northern Lights Hotel has boarded up broken windows and painted over graffiti. The building is valued at $23,000; the land it sits on, just over $2 million.BOARDED UP: The current owner of the Northern Lights Hotel has boarded up broken windows and painted over graffiti. The building is valued at $23,000; the land it sits on, just over $2 million.

Gray said the city sent Emerald a letter, threatening to begin a process called abatement, where the city demolishes a building and sends the owner a bill. Usually a process like that winds up in court, he said. Shortly after, Emerald came and did a better job boarding up the windows and doors. It also painted over some graffiti painted by the street artist Meno. But Gray still thinks the hotel is a concern. All it would take is another breach in security.

“The fire department is really uncomfortable with that building,” he said.

Municipal manager George Vakalis said Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration had no position on whether the building should be demolished. So long as the owner was keeping it secure, he said, it meets the city’s standards for vacant dwellings. He talked to me on speaker phone with municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler on the line. If the owners came forward with a plan for the parcel, the city did have some ability to offer incentives, Wheeler said. The city had an interest in having a vital business on that lot, he said. But, Vakalis said, so long as it complied with city rules, the owner could do with it what it liked.

Sure, people can do what they want on their property, but it seems to me an empty, derelict building can reach a point where it becomes a drag on the businesses around it. It’s not just the hotel owner’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem. Even in a stretch of Midtown where the architectural standards are not high, the Northern Lights Hotel has crossed the line from being unobtrusive and empty to being a blight.

Even an empty lot is better. It communicates promise, rather than decay. But then, I don’t live or work around there; I just drive by.

I found mixed feelings among the hotel’s neighbors. Don Pohland, chairman of the Midtown community council, said that he hadn’t heard any complaints. Sunil Sethi, owner of Bombay Deluxe, the Indian restaurant in the strip mall across Northern Lights, said he’d prefer an empty lot.

“It’s not really good for business having an abandoned building,” he said. “It draws a lot of the characters who want to take shelter over there.”

At Cartridge World, east of the Hotel, Amie Hart works at the counter and stares at the building all day. She’s seen birds fly in and out on occasion, she said.

“It’s kind of a waste of space,” she said.

At The Hole Look, a tattoo and piercing shop in the strip mall near Cartridge World, counter girl Victoria Anderson said she’d seen people come and go from the building. She even met a few who’d slept inside. She heard that it was mostly intact, down to the cups and silverware. Like it closed its doors with everybody expecting to come back. Every day at the same time, a security car drives by. She kind of appreciates the graffiti, she said. It improves her view.

A customer, overhearing what we were talking about, joined our conversation.

“They need to implode it,” she said.

My thoughts exactly.

Readers: Should the government get involved to clean up an eyesore? Talk about it here.

© Copyright 2011, The Anchorage Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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