Running dispute keeps lawmakers' parking lot empty

Anchorage officials want space opened when not needed

Posted: Friday, April 14, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A parking lot reserved for state lawmakers sits vacant during off hours because of a long-running dispute between the Legislature and the owners of the downtown Anchorage lot.

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Anchorage officials and downtown business owners would like the Legislative Information Office parking lot opened when the legislators don't need it.

"It's completely underutilized, especially while people are in Juneau," said Chris Schutte with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, which helps boost business downtown.

The lot was open in the 1990s, but the Legislature closed it because of management problems. Lawmakers have eyed reopening plans for years, but no plan has emerged because of the escalating landlord-tenant conflict and legal questions.

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich last month sent a letter to Rep. Norman Rokeberg and Sen. John Cowdery, asking that the lot be opened. The Anchorage legislators sit on the Legislative Council, which makes decisions about legislative leases.

Other public buildings, such as City Hall and the state courthouse, open lots in off hours, Begich wrote. The letter said the city's parking agency could manage the lot.

The area has the highest demand for parking in the city, said Kevin Kinney, head of Anchorage Parking.

Begich hasn't heard anything in response. Cowdery declined to comment. Rokeberg, who supports opening the lot, was irked that the issue wasn't yet resolved.

Rokeberg tried to broker a deal last year that would have reduced the monthly rent the Legislature pays for the building and parking lot by $2,000. Under the deal, the Legislature would have given up its 24-hour rights to the parking spots.

A contractor could have managed the 98-space lot, Rokeberg said. Parking revenue would have gone to Bob Acree, the building's landlord.

Rokeberg said the Legislature would have saved an estimated $85,000 over the course of the lease, which expires in 2009.

Legislators rejected the plan under the advice of Legislative Affairs Agency head Pam Varni.

Parking is needed for after-hours teleconferences, according to Varni. She said similar situations haven't worked out in the past, including cars that sat over night and caused problems in the morning.

Acree has the potential to make hundreds of thousands off the parking rental, she said.

"It's like saying, 'You are using your office from 8 to 3. How about I use your office when you're not working there?'" she said. "I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way. Our lease says we have exclusive use of our parking 24 hours a day."

There is also liability, should someone get hurt said Ted Popely, legislative counsel.

Another issue is whether the Legislature could allow the landlord to make a profit on the spots without putting a contract out to bid.

Acree said he offered to give any profits from lot parking to a charity. Any liability for problems on the lot would be his, because he owns it, he said. He said he wants the spaces open because it is good for the public and nearby restaurants he owns.

The parking issue came up again in late March, when legislators tackled another matter with Acree over the size of existing parking spaces.

After last year's go-round over opening the lot, the parking spaces were measured. Some of the spots were inches narrower than specified in the lease, so the Legislature had the lot re-striped, widening the places. To make up for the lost slots, it rented 12 more spaces in a downtown pay lot.

The cost of the 12-space rental is $9,000 a month, which the Legislature subtracted from the $52,670 monthly building rent paid to Acree. Rental downtown parking is usually less expensive. Renting 12 spaces in a municipal lot would cost about $750 monthly, according to Kinney.

The Legislature needed parking space close to the building and had to pay the high price because that was all that was available, Popely said.

Acree went before the Legislative Council in March looking for a solution. Legislators had been parking in the slightly smaller spots for years without problems, he told the council.

The Legislature is still looking for ways to solve the parking conflict, said Pete Kott, an Eagle River legislator who chairs the Legislative Council.

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