Yes, Alaska is magnificent and most of us feel lucky to live here. But why aren't we just as proud of our city? Why do so many of us apologize for it and laughingly refer to "Los Anchorage?"
Some examples are obvious -- Midtown sidewalks covered in muddy ice with debris that hasn't been cleared for weeks. Soon that mess will be flying into the air, attacking eyes and lungs for weeks during our finest spring weather. Or the overwhelming asphalt of Midtown, the waste of having to drive from one destination to the next instead of walking or catching a bus, the need for more spots to sit out and have a quiet lunch in the sun, and how we lose more of our precious sun when another tall building goes up.
People wanted change when they adopted Anchorage's comprehensive plan in 2001. Citizens rejected "current trends." Instead, they wanted the city to become a traditional urban center with homes mixed among shops and stronger neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, parks, and community centers with shopping, offices, recreational and social activities.
It took eight years for our land use code, Title 21, to be reworked to reflect that vision. Developers won many compromises during those years. "Cost" concerns typically won over public health and the environment. Public open spaces (sunny green places with benches) were jettisoned early on. Wildlife habitat protections were gutted. Landscaping was weakened and sunlight protection never really got off the ground.
Still, by late 2010, the Assembly had provisionally adopted over 90 percent of Title 21. Then, the Assembly's process stopped dead in its tracks in favor of Mayor Dan Sullivan's contract with Dan Coffey to, as Mr. Coffey said, "put development back into the comprehensive plan."
Title 21 has been stalled since then, and now the Planning and Zoning Commission questions whether Anchorage really wants "change." They say we've changed our minds. They consider themselves the ultimate experts, and language that was hard won over months and years is about to be discarded. They've agreed to follow Dan Coffey's "guiding principles" rather than our adopted plans. The fox is in charge of the hen house.
Today's commission sounds a lot like the earlier "Mayor's Real Estate Task Force," also formed to give developers a greater voice in Title 21. Interestingly, at one meeting with developers, several of them talked about how they would never retire in Anchorage. Those who spoke had surprisingly similar plans, with a summer home in Mat-Su and a winter home in the California desert.
The group culminated in a private 2004 meeting between developers and muni planners, where many Title 21 provisions were scrapped or rewritten: landscaping, open spaces, residential and commercial design standards, sunlight protections and more. Today, because muni planners have considerably less support from the administration and average citizens have been worn down by the decade of work, developers don't have to compromise any more. They can produce their own rewrite.
Some say we can't build the city described in our comprehensive plan, because we can't afford it. Baloney. City planners carefully studied development costs under the new code and found some would go up, but most projects would cost less. The immediate short term costs would be down. But it's more important to consider the long-term costs.
Our job here is to figure out how to keep what we love about Anchorage while planning for a much larger population. Some standards that would cost more now (landscaping, sidewalks, northern design) will be lots cheaper than fixing problems later. Other growing cities have far stronger standards than our whittled down Title 21. Anchorage can afford this in the short term. What we can't afford is business as usual.
What can you do? Talk with your Assembly representative and the mayor. Tell them you haven't changed your mind and you want Anchorage to become a world-class city that is worthy of our magnificent state. You can also volunteer with the Anchorage Citizens Coalition: AnchorageCitizensCoalition@gmail.com.
Cheryl Richardson directs the Anchorage Citizens' Coalition.