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.


Anchorage Mayoral race hits the fan

March 17, 2015 at 5:36 am | Posted in alaska, anchorage, politics | Leave a comment
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It’s not as much of a clown show as six years ago, when 15 candidates [some of ’em completely crazy] were cleanly outdistanced by Dan Sullivan.  Sullivan coasted to a victory again in 2012 and is now termed out.

A somewhat crowded field going into this year’s contest, with the usual fringe oriented also-rans vying for attention along with the front runners.  In ’09, fresh from two terms of Mayor Mark Begich [almost — he had to leave a few months early to succeed Ted Stevens in the US Senate] and shortly after President Obama started his first term, the mayor’s race was crowded with left leaning candidates.  Today three of the leading four are trying to out-Republican each other, leaving Ethan Berkowitz the sole representative of the left.  Berkowitz and Halcro are both veteran campaigners who served in the AK State House and haven’t had much luck running for Governor or in other tries.

Rounding out the Republican front runner field are Amy Demboski and Dan Coffey.

Demboski seems to be in trouble early on, having trouble spinning a story and coddling the far right too literally.

I predict Coffey will nail it after a runoff.  He is the kind of pro-business, go along to get along, not much personality, dull enough to fit in, enough acumen to play the game, dead fish kind of a candidate the majority of us [not including this writer] always prefer.  He comes off as a used car salesman, in a way perfect for the task at hand.  Halcro is the sort of one in a million Republican for whom I would be tempted to vote for — but there’s no way he makes it to the runoff.  And then I recall that even though he’s the smartest one in the group by far, he’s still in it for business interests over regular people, the same as the other two.  They’re like a casino where the house always wins.  Or like 35 years of Lynne Curry columns, where in 1,000 hypothetical employer-employee disputes, management prevails in all but three.

Predictably, Koch Brothers money is infiltrating the race with anti-Berkowitz ads.  The people likely to vote for him are the least likely to be influenced by PAC attack ads, ironically.

The Sullivan administration is still running the election, so who knows if it will be immune from problems, intentional or not?  We’ll find out soon enough — and whether or not more than 20% of the eligible voters will even bother to show up for this.  If they only would — how different the results could be!

Dream on, brothers and sisters.

Bike to work with the mayor

February 18, 2010 at 5:31 am | Posted in biking, politics | 3 Comments
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Ran across this item yesterday at Bike Commute Tips.  Tried to put the video up here but couldn’t do it last night after an hour of trying.  WordPress supports a few different players, but not the one StreetFilms uses… there was another way to back-door it in via Vodpod but that had its own problems.  Since I’m too cheap to get the $57 annual upgrade to support all video types [I’d do it, if this blog was getting hundreds of hits per day instead of 10 to 20], I gave up.

Ya sure… anyway… do go to StreetFilms and watch the short video of Seattle mayor Mike McGinn biking to work.  It is totally worth it!  I know nothing of McGinn’s politics, but I am aware that he beat two other candidates who were a lot better funded, in a close three-way race.  He makes biking 6.5 miles from his house in the Greenwood neighborhood to City Hall downtown look like a piece of cake — even while it’s obvious it isn’t.  I biked around Seattle extensively in Summer ’08 when I was photographing alleys, and while it was delightful it was also challenging and obstacle-laden.  Anchorage is a lot easier.

Conservatives are fond of telling commies like me that we have “Portland envy” or “Seattle envy”.  There are aspects of both these places I find compelling, even precious.  But they have major issues with pollution, crowding and congestion and high cost of living — without the access to wilderness that Anchorage offers.

But what I appreciate about them is a desire to improve.  Look at McGinn’s ‘Ideas for Seattle’ site, and try to imagine these suggestions coming from Anchorage residents.  Or do I sell Anchorage short?  Maybe a little.  You’ll never see our current mayor, Dan Sullivan riding a bike to work — but on the other hand, the days I ride I have plenty of company on the paths, side streets and arterials.

McGinn is still in the honeymoon phase — but if he makes good on listening to suggestions submitted directly from citizens, and flattens the pyramidal control structure a little, and makes good on various populist principles — he will enjoy a long and productive run.  I love the guy.

Billionaires for wealth care

August 31, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Posted in politics | Leave a comment
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via Daily Kos.  Hilarious!!


July 11, 2009 at 5:18 am | Posted in photo du jour, politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Republican deathwatch.

Republican deathwatch.

Election eve rant-n-rave

May 5, 2009 at 4:31 am | Posted in alaska, anchorage, politics | Leave a comment
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I recognize the air out there.  It is the mid-1980s all over again.  A lot of people got drastically overextended during good times, and now comes the inevitable dip.  (Of course, it may be much worse this time — combined with apocalyptic environmental catastrophe and the collapse of the world financial system.)  Anyway, a lot of people who are on the fence about it are susceptible to right wing ideology when times are bad.  Maybe liberals appeal to our drives and conservatives to our fears? 

In 1987 the city turned to mayor Tom Fink — a consummate skinflint, the cheapass’s cheapass.  All decked out in a natty 30 year old suit, wingtips, a bow tie, porkpie hat and corncob pipe (sounds hilarious, I know), he wormed his way into our collective heart by playing the victim, making promises he couldn’t deliver and promising to make massive cuts.  Clever ads squeaked him through a close election.  He had said he wouldn’t run again, losing his last several bids for elective office over a 20 year period (he had served in the State House in the ’60s).

He sensed the mood of fear and uncertainty, and capitalized on it in the way Sullivan is now trying to do.  For anyone who was around for Fink’s two terms, it was a big mistake for Anchorage and set back several initiatives decades.

I wish I’d taken more photos of Anchorage during Fink’s tenure.  I moved out of Anchorage for a year.  A lot of that decision hinged on the political climate.  By the time I returned I’d decided the place was great in spite of the rampant dominance of ill-informed so-called conservatism.

Fink stopped maintaining parks.  I recall soccer fields with dead, brown grass and foot and a half high weeds.  Planting beds with shrubs being choked out by dandelions.  He publicly threatened to mothball the brand new Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.  He closed four of the neighborhood branch libraries.  He cut the Parks and Recreation Dept.’s budget by two thirds.  I fully expected him to round up the poets and shoot them in the Town Square.

Essentially, he cut everything I ever cared about and everything that made the place more livable to anybody outside of the elite Republican (what passes for) Anchorage aristocracy. 

His successors, for the most part inherited a mess of deferred maintenance and shoddy organization.  In Mt View where I live, the most densely populated and poorest Anchorage neighborhood, we are finally getting a branch library again 21 years after Fink closed it.  Other signs of Fink’s abscence of compassion are everywhere.

People who manage to get seduced by Sullivan should look coolly and objectively at the situation, and how much they are taking for granted.

I believe a city is like your body.  It is very hard to whip yourself into good physical condition.  It takes constant work, to get there and maintain.  It does not take long at all to fall back out of shape.  The mental conundrum with Sullivan, is he has personified comfort food, a couch and TV.  You won’t even have to think about taxes, infrastructure, vital services and proper planning and management.  Just vote for me, and I’ll take care of it.  And if some of my rich friends get a lot richer, it’s just collateral damage, don’t worry about it!

It’s all the same bad craziness that made modern Republicanism so remarkable — so many people out there voting against their self-interest.  It’s somehow weirdly fitting that the northernmost metropolis is the last bastion of a movement that is deservedly freefalling down a hole.  A Sullivan victory will take Anchorage down the same death spiral. 

Vote your drives!

Update 5-5-09: Sully wins it, bigtime.  Looks like the final will be 56-44%, pretty much a smear.  Low turnout as expected.  Suck!


April 5, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Posted in anchorage, photo du jour, politics | Leave a comment
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Sign of the times, Anchorage.

Sign of the times, Anchorage.

The debate

September 27, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Posted in politics | Leave a comment
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I watched the entire debate and it freaked me out a little.  Are we a bunch of warmongering a-holes or what?  These guys only pay lip service at best to the idea of war as a last resort.  I know why this posturing is happening — the terms of the discussion are being defined by the right wing [as usual].  You know, “the Republicans want to kill terrorists and the Democrats want to send them to therapy.”  So Obama has to stand up there and talk about winning the Iraq war and executing our enemies.

Except Iraq isn’t really a war.  The war lasted three weeks.  It is an occupation, and it can be ended but it cannot really be won or lost.  In terms of winning hearts and minds of the people there — it isn’t happening.  The siege of Fallujah entailed a city the size of Anchorage basically being wiped off the map.  And there have been how many civilians killed?  600,000?  1,000,000 or more?  Can you imagine how we’d react if some other country came here and took us over like that?

It was interesting that both candidates tiptoed around the $700 billion “bailout” proposal.

McCain kept repeating over and over again that Obama “doesn’t understand” and “doesn’t get it”.  The same justification is being used to sell the bailout to the public.  They don’t approve of it [in resoundingly large majority] because they “don’t understand how the mortgage market works”. 

I’ll bet we understand it well, and will dispense with the economic philosophy in effect since 1980 as quickly and completely as we can.  Otherwise we’ll just perpetuate failure.

Looking forward to Biden-Palin next week!  Let ’em try to cancel again!  Ha!


August 31, 2008 at 6:00 am | Posted in photo du jour, politics | Leave a comment
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Palin campaign sign amongst other wingnuttery on a Fairbanks house.

Palin campaign sign amongst other wingnuttery on a Fairbanks house.

Primary post mortem

August 28, 2008 at 6:25 am | Posted in politics | Leave a comment
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I didn’t even want to look at the results this morning because I had a feeling this was one of those elections when nothing went my way. 

Lt. Governor Sean Parnell almost pulled a fast one on Don Young in the U.S. House GOP primary.  Young will squeak by.  On the Democratic side, Ethan Berkowitz bested Diane Benson by 16 points, though a poll had him 28 points up the week before.  I had high hopes for Benson.  She represents every segment of society that is chronically under-represented.  She would have been the first female Native American in the U.S. Congress.  She would have been perfect and I hope she will run again.  She ran a much better campaign than in 2006.  She won every debate and Q&A hands down.  I could write a book about her but I’ll stop here.

The larger disappointment for me: both Berkowitz and Benson are highly qualified, conscientious and dedicated.  Parnell is an empty vessel, incapable of answering questions in debates [Young dubbed him Captain Zero]; visibly, obviously clueless.  And Young is embattled in a corruption scandal investigation [he’s already spent more than $1 million on legal defense].  And yet, with all but a few votes counted there are 93,544 cast in the closed GOP primary and 65,432 for the Democrats and all the fringe parties.  Berkowitz will have no better or worse chances than Benson would have, and sadly won’t be able to close this 18 point gap before the general election.

This should have been the Democrats’ big year!  With the Republican corruption scandal reducing the state GOP to charred remains [three former state legislators in jail, more indicted or under investigation].  If not now, when?

The Senate race is a much brigher outlook for the left.  Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich collected 55,993 votes in the open primary to Ted Stevens’ 59,123.  Stevens’ Republican opponent David Cuddy got 25,380.  Stevens has already been indicted and will likely be in the middle of his corruption trial on November 4th. 

A good friend grew up in northern Virginia near Washington D.C.  He said today: now you know how Marion Berry could get re-elected as D.C. mayor after he was caught smoking crack with a hooker in a motel room.  “What would Stevens have to do?” he asked.  “He may as well fire up a crack pipe on the six o’clock news — it obviously won’t cost him any votes.”

The way this one will go Nov. 4th — if there’s a wingnut or two on the ballot to siphon off some railbelt Republicans, Begich will be able to squeak in there.  50.001 percent would be enough of a mandate for me.  I don’t always agree with Begich on the issues, but he’s demonstrated an ability to learn and he’s run a sophisticated campaign that has put him on the national radar in short order.  I’m excited about the idea of him winning.

We voted on four bond propostions, with significant impact on environmental regulation; aerial wolf hunting and campaign financing.  In three of the four props, the vote was lopsided and against the people’s interests.  And the vote represents a triumph of the influence of a massive influx of funds from out of state PACs — something that’s a bigger problem each election, and there will be a lot more of it because it almost always succeeds here.  I must be surrounded by some of the dumbest people in the nation.  Almost everyone I asked about it only beagn reading and analyzing the bond props minutes before going to the polls.

Finally, I was embarrassed again to be living in a district that routinely votes 80% or more on the liberal side [and is the most coherent, compact and densely populated district in the state] but also usually has the lowest or second lowest voter turnout of 40 districts in the state.  While most Anchorage districts turned out 3,000 to 4,000 voters, ours managed less than 1,000.

Life goes on!  It’s always a challenge around here, too.  Alaska will have its Democratic revolution one day.  It just may take ten more years.

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