Eklutna steers development

Native corp’s land-use decisions guided by traditional values, CEO says
Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 10:43
  • STAR PHOTO BY MARY LOCHNER - Curtis McQueen, CEO at Eklutna, Inc., points to a map of Chugiak-Eagle River as he talks about the Native corporation’s vision for land stewardship and development.

Of the lands the Eklutna Athabascan people retained through their corporation after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, roughly 90,000 acres remain today within the Anchorage municipality.

The private holdings make Eklutna, Inc. the largest private land owner in the municipality, with a portion of it having already gone to support community growth in Chugiak-Eagle River over the years.

Four schools – Chugiak High School, Gruening Middle School, Birchwood ABC and Eagle River Elementary – sit on millions of dollars’ worth of Eklutna land, said the corporation’s real estate manager, Greg McDonald. But collectively, Eklutna only charges the Anchorage School District $10 per year for all four sites.

That’s not something Eklutna’s tribal people and board members like to advertise, McDonald said. As a non-shareholder and non-tribal member from the Lower 48, he said, the Eklutna people’s humility has made a big impression on him.

The arrangement for local schools isn’t the only way Eklutna has contributed to the community through its land, McDonald said: when Birchwood needed land to grow on, Eklutna made it available; when the city wanted to do a land trade for Mount Baldy to benefit recreational hikers, Eklutna made the deal at a loss; and when the recent road improvement was made to Eagle River Road near the Eagle River Nature Center, Eklutna, allowed the city to take its land on the mountainous side of the road so the expansion wouldn’t have to occur on wetlands on the other side.

But the corporation’s CEO, Curtis McQueen, said development on Eklutna lands hasn’t always been easy for some tribal members to watch unfold. There are some elders who miss things the way they were, he said, and wish the land could stay as it always was.

But using the land in a way that benefits the wider community, is how the people who guide the Native corporation express their own core traditional values, McQueen said.

“There’s a lot of times where we spend money on land issues that don’t have a business return for us,” he said. “But we don’t think of it that way. We think, somewhere down the road, maybe far down the road, it’ll come back in a different way.”

The questions board members ask themselves when considering how to use land resources, he said, comes down to things such as, “Does it fit us as a Native people? Does it fit our fundamental ways as a community?”

Those are the questions Eklutna, Inc. has increasingly had to answer for itself in recent years, as pressures from area population growth, combined with a housing crunch, have spurred a move toward more development.

Chugiak-Eagle River has lagged behind the faster-growing Valley, in many ways, McQueen said, because Eklutna was slow and cautious early on in allowing development on its lands.

But that, he said, is beginning to change.

 

‘Balance’

McQueen pointed to a map of a 404-acre piece of land west of the Glenn Highway and north of Eklutna Drive. It’s across the highway from Fred Meyer and the Providence Imaging Center, developments which also involved Eklutna, Inc.

He talked up the corporation’s plan for a residential development there.

But he also pointed to Eklutna’s holdings along the coast of the Knik Arm. He traced his finger along Chugiak-Eagle River on the map, essentially a stretch of flatter land locked between the Chugach Mountains and the Knik Arm.

If everything between the mountains and the sea is developed, he said, there’s no way for fur-bearing animals to pass through.

Through research it’s funded to study local aquifers, salmon, and animals, McQueen said, the corporation has gained a solid understanding of the natural environment. It uses that knowledge when it comes to making land-use decisions about its private holdings.

“We know they’re around the streams, and run up and down the coast,” McQueen said of some of the fur-bearing animals in the local area, including bear, moose, and members of the Elmendorf wolf pack. “So we’ve taken land with bluff property – you could have million-dollar homes with a view of Knik – and we took that out of play.”

It might look like a short-term loss to some people, McQueen said. But to Eklutna, it looks like a long-term gain.

“The Native community thinks long-term and way out,” he said. “We’re not constricted by a business quarter, by the immediacy, the reaction.”

The Valley has grown quickly; for Eklutna, McQueen said, planning a balanced land-use approach with care and forethought in a way that expresses Eklutna’s values is more important than speed.

 

Planned growth

Eklutna began work on Powder Ridge, a 400-unit single-family housing development west of the Glenn Highway just off the North Eagle River Exit, in 2002, and completed the last phase of development in 2012.

It’s next project, Powder Reserve, has been eight years in the making, with an initial master plan approved by the municipality in 2010, and the first handful of homes being built there just this year.

Located on 404 acres west of the Glenn Highway near Eklutna Drive and across the highway from the Eagle River Fred Meyers, Powder Reserve is poised to make a significant impact on the housing market in the Anchorage municipality.

And that, said Chris Schutte, director of the muni’s office of economic and community development, is a good thing.

As population growth has outstripped housing supply in the municipality, rents and home prices have gone up.

That’s put the hurt on singles and families who are trying to save or invest money, or just get by.

Residents in the Anchorage municipality, which includes Chugiak-Eagle River, spent on average 41 percent of their incomes on housing in 2014. That’s according to a report by State of Alaska economist Neal Fried, “The Cost of Living in Alaska,” published in July.

The cost of housing in Anchorage, according to the report, increased roughly 13 percent between 2007 and 2012.

Increased housing costs could make it difficult for people to purchase a first home, or purchase a larger home for their growing families, Schutte said.

And, it can push families into homelessness when they can’t find affordable rentals. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation put the rental vacancy rate at just 2.8 percent in 2012, which was identified by the muni’s task force on homelessness as a contributing factor to homelessness in Anchorage.

Schutte said a comprehensive housing analysis conducted by the municipality in 2012 indicated the muni would have to add around 900 homes per year to meet projected demand.

He added that population growth in the muni has slowed somewhat, falling under previous projections. But the reduction in growth doesn’t come near to closing the supply-demand gap.

“If population growth plateaus, and supply increases through the Eklutna plans, you should see a downward pressure on prices,” Schutte said. “Not everyone wants to live in Eagle River. But having an increase in supply will introduce movement in the housing spectrum in other parts of town, and I would anticipate prices would, if not go down, certainly not increase at the rate we’ve seen over the last five years.”

There’s enough space on Powder Reserve to develop 2,500 units, McQueen said. But Eklutna wanted to plan for a quality living experience, and selected that over quantity. It took 100 acres out of the equation, planning for 1,500 units instead.

“Eagle River’s different,” McQueen said, “and we’re a people of space, us as a Native people. Let’s think about what are people going to experience when they’re there.”

The Powder Reserve master plan includes both single-family homes and apartment complexes and condos, with a site already selected for a new school as growth proceeds, as well as a site for an MEA substation, and a commercial real estate section where businesses will be located.

McQueen said Eklutna envisions it as a place where people can have a high quality of living, and walk or bike to the local school, or to work, or to a local coffee shop to visit with friends.

It’s not an egalitarian paradise – the higher-end homes will sit on the top of the hill with views of Knik, with more high-density housing planned for low-lying areas. That’s the best development value for Eklutna’s shareholders, McQueen said. But there will be housing options at Powder Reserve for everyone from the $30,000 a year to $300,000 a year income range, for example.

The land will be made available for developers, who will naturally buy in as market incentives entice them to, McQueen said. Already, 36 lots have been platted, with about two-thirds of those either already being built on or purchased with intent to build by housing developers.

McQueen said he sees the design of the Powder Reserve development as an extension of traditional Native values into a present and future where traditional Western ways of life predominate.

He described life in Eklutna village as one in which families were close to one another, close to other members in the community, and close to the fish and other resources they received from the land to sustain themselves.

“In many ways, we’ve taken that creativity of thinking as a Native people, and embedded that into the new modern way of creating neighborhoods,” he said, adding, “We stayed together as a community, we lived and died as a community, and we shared the resources as a community.”

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