Renewal of faith in city planning? Maybe?

July 30, 2015 at 5:46 am | Posted in anchorage, politics | 7 Comments
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I guess I grew cynical over the last several election cycles, and was surprised and unprepared when Ethan Berkowitz won the Mayoral race earlier this year.  Berkowitz, a Democrat [the Municipal elections are ostensibly non-partisan] has now teamed up with Andrew Halcro, one of his Republican opponents in the primary and since taking office earlier this month completed a transition plan that identifies several course changes for the city.

Like new Alaska Governor Bill Walker, Berkowitz reached out to the public for ideas on how to deliver government services more efficiently.  I wrote to both of them.

To Walker, I suggested cancelling the five largest transportation projects now in the planning stages [including the Knik Arm Bridge; the Anchorage Highway to Highway project; and the Bragaw St. extension], and at the same time implementing sweeping changes in Statewide and Regional Transportation Planning processes, in order to prevent such ill-conceived debacles from coming to the forefront in the future.  While he hasn’t been able to halt any of them, at least the climate has changed enough that policymakers are questioning the party line and how priorities are established.  Tiny steps!

In the letter to Berkowitz I suggested that Anchorage’s failure to change its dominant development pattern [despite an effort to move that way, evidenced by the Anchorage 2020 Comprehensive Plan and early efforts to rewrite the Title 21 Land Use Code, before it was co-opted by the Dan Sullivan administration beginning in 2009] is having an ill effect overall, and if left unchecked will destroy what is great about the city.

It doesn’t sound like a budget issue on the face of it, but bear with me.  The more one looks into it, the more apparent it becomes that there are costs to sprawl development that are not being accounted for.  In the big picture, it’s obvious what is happening — there are not walk-able commercial blocks outside of Downtown, so in order to shop, go to an appointment with a service provider or go out to restaurants and nightclubs all but the most ambitious [and blessed with the most free time] are forced into their cars [since there is also not a robust system of Public Transit].  Thus, the traffic is more congested, with all of the associated drawbacks [danger, noise, pollution, frustration, devaluing of property alongside major roadways] — not to mention loss of habitat/open space.

Sprawl — if you want a more specific term with local relevance, let’s call it suburban strip development — accommodates population growth, but in the least efficient manner possible.  Left that way [lacking incentives or directives for anything else], its low density mat will spread far and wide, and unless the city’s boundaries expand with it, the tax base will remain flat.  In Anchorage’s case it has led to the siren song of developers, that Anchorage is “out of develop-able land” [and thus we need to throw that bridge over to Pt. McKenzie and build more of the same over there].  To paraphrase the American Legion motto: all of that Free Parking is NOT FREE!!

The presentation of an alternative scenario will be built on the following basic tenet [courtesy Occupy Wall St.]:
this is not the way

Communities in other parts of the country and in other nations figured out long ago that sprawl is not the way to go.  Sometimes this epiphany came after decades going down the wrong path.  Anchorage is far enough down that path to come to its collective senses and turn around.  Mayor Berkowitz said in a Chamber of Commerce speech this week, “There are times when we should care how they do it Outside.”

We also should stop making policy based on the opinions and public positions of those with an axe to grind, and rely more on sound planning and proven principles than on local folklore.  We’ve got to get past the current mentality, where long term goals are routinely sacrificed for short term gain, without a firm grasp on true consequences.

Planners, urbanists and academics for more than six decades have argued that a more complex, less segregated pattern [with people living in all areas of a town, in random mixture of income level and cultural identity] is a healthier environment that results in more supervision and fewer rampant social ills.  We have some of the ingredients but none of the purpose and vision, and the results are becoming a catastrophe, with Anchorage bubbling near the top on several lists of The Most Dangerous Cities in the USA.  I’d argue that the lousy development pattern is a major contributing factor — for all the reasons Jane Jacobs would cite — and, conversely if you give a place vibrance, purpose and meaning the required sense of ownership and protection of people and assets naturally follows.

Anchorage has been successful in some important ways — there’s a great network of non-motorized trails; wilderness access is still first-rate; and there’s mostly a lack of the most egregious sorts of visual pollution such as billboards and 200 ft tall signs.  There are great parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities.

In order to build on this and provide for future generations, at this point we should embrace Smart Growth principles; Complete Streets; and reconsider long- and short-term planning goals in regards to protecting and enhancing existing established neighborhoods.

The blow-back is inevitable and will be strong.  Home builders already publicly state that any new regulations that don’t exist will add to the already high cost of housing [when actually, prices are always set by what the market will bear].  Quasi-public agencies like housing authorities will come down on the side of less regulation too — they see it as something they should control and direct.  [In the letter to Mayor Berkowitz, I suggested part of the problem in Anchorage is that major players such as the Alaska Railroad, the State Dept of Transportation and Public Facilities, the Ted Stevens International Airport, the School District and others now operate largely autonomously, are guided by an internal culture and consider themselves affiliated with but not accountable to Anchorage.]

In most other U.S. cities the size of Anchorage, there are numerous commercial centers in neighborhoods outside of town where one can, on a single block find small shops of all kinds, restaurants and bars and other sorts of venues in a dense arrangement, with apartments mixed in on second and third floors, and minimal or no on-site parking available.  Many of these are fantastic, desirable destinations.  There are cars and traffic, but not overwhelming… big trees, sidewalk tables, vibrant scenes with a mixture of culture and socio-economic status.  We do not have anything like this here — but we have many blocks, in many parts of town where a redevelopment pattern like this could be incubated.

There would be numerous advantages gained.  Let’s say you’re an entrepreneur with a food cart or a food truck, and want to make the jump to a restaurant.  It’s easier downtown, but rents are prohibitively high and availability limited.  Outside of downtown, you are almost surely stuck in a strip mall [that also may not be affordable] if you want any advantage of a shared endeavor [parking and the presence of spillover customers who came there for other reasons].  With just a few tables, you will need parking for several cars — more expensive than it sounds, because it has to include the dimensions of the parking spaces, access aisles and driveways, drainage infrastructure, landscaping, lighting and so forth; and all this has to be reviewed and permitted by the city, and maintained.  It’s a huge and unnecessary burden.

The stores in a typical mid-sized strip mall could be placed on a city block in less than 1/3 the total area, and have a floor or two of apartments above, with parking provided on-street instead of on-site [or, in larger developments also in multi-level garages and in other ways including diagonal back-out stalls on internal collector roads].  There’s every advantage to the small independent business owner, the general public and the city at large [drastically increased tax base combined with greater availability of adjacent land for other uses].

We have lots of need for housing, and more of it of a specialized sort — housing for seniors; for artists; for chronically homeless, addicted or mentally ill.

The Millennial generation is quickly abandoning the car in favor of walking and transit, and the rest of us should support this trend.  Anchorage has a long tradition of advocacy, by several prominent locals including Suzan Nightingale [1950-96], Ruth Moulton [1931-2006], Laine Fleischer, Walt Parker [1926-2014] and many others.  Cheryl Richardson and Anchorage Citizens Coalition are doing great work in recent years to keep the issues I’ve been writing about here at the forefront, and helping to educate the public.

We have, in Mayor Berkowitz a sympathetic ear [evidenced by his appointment of Halcro as head of the Municipal Development Authority and Chris Schutte as Community and Economic Development Director] and the time is now to voice your concerns to your Municipal and State elected officials!  Tell them what you would like to see, and why.  Developers and major landholders always have the ear of any administration — it’s more rare that the general population has a chance to be heard, too.

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7 Comments »

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  1. It sounds wonderful, do you have any examples in a northern climate comparable to Anchorage? I won’t say it can’t be done here, but our climate is just the first major obstacle. Then we would have to sell the idea to a populace that isn’t known for being told government knows best. This is something that needs to be pushed from the bottom up and I just don’t see a lot of community support for it.

    • That’s changing quickly [both the climate and willigness to consider new ideas].

  2. Umfortunately, Clark, the developers are running the show, and just a read through the transition plan and recognition of who still has a job should let you know this administration will be as compassionate as any Chamber of Commerce can be.

    Yes, we are all happy to be out from under little Danny, but I don’t think those sighs of relief are forthcoming because Anchorage will suddenly become progressive – we will never be any more progressive than Levitown and tickytacky is writ large in our future.

    • Ha, ha! Yeah, I picture you sitting on a stool at the end of some seedy hole in the wall Old Timer bar, making a gesture for me to come sit down so you can explain How Things Work In This Town.

      • The guy who ran our crappy buses is now running the budget, and the guy who presided over installing failing bridges and thought it was OK never to check them is still in charge of parks. The Chamber of Commerce is managing the administration. In the meantime, Muldoon Town Center is rapidly turning in to everything the community was promised would not happen, while we continue to build roads to continue the grid completion while an elevated highway over Muldoon and Tudor has been kept off the drawing board and will never see the light of day. Kumbaya moments are, if they exist, exceedingly rare, and I will acknowledge Ethan for doing something well, when it happens….. In the meantime, the MOA just shut off the bus through our subdivision, the major East-West Trail is shut down while there are no plans to fix the worst parts, health care for the poor has crashed with the efforts by ANHC to be something it isn’t, and the sirens and cockerels kept me up all night 😉 excuse me if I wait a bit to start celebrating anything other than Danny’s Demise.

        But, I will add your blog to the blog role at http://opinion.alaskapolicy.net/pardonme as though I am not high on Ethan et al, I enjoyed your blog 🙂

  3. In reply to ‘netbuoy’… It is a good idea to be skeptical and vigilant. Our previous non-reactionary Mayor, Begich — while I love him and his heart is in the right place — also managed to be quite beholden to the Good Old Boy Network. And he crammed the Glenn Square Mall down our throats. [I was in a Mt. View Community Council meeting where Allen Tesche and Max Gruenberg took me aside and tried to broker my support — in vain, and myself and one of my neighbors remained a No vote, but it was approved 13-2 with 4 abstaining. Why were they arguing for the developers?] And while the initially DOA mall is getting just a little bit better eight years in, I would still rather have the 20 acres of trees it displaced. The 70-unit housing project under construction next to it is kind of neat. Doesn’t the Muldoon Town Center have a weekend Farmers Market? How bad could that be?

    • Lions and Tigers and Bears! I just listened to Fink and Berkowitz being interviewed on KSKA by some kid. It’s worse then I thought! (and I added your blog link)


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