Compass: Let's take the time to get Title 21 right

Title 21 regulates development and sets design standards for Anchorage. It is in the process of being updated by our Assembly.

Anchorage has been shortsighted in making these kinds of decisions. An example would be not requiring stronger design standards for big box stores. This has resulted in lots of ugly big box stores. But Eagle River required a higher standard and they got a much more pleasant looking, landscaped facility.

When I moved to Anchorage in '81, the city was attractive because it had a lot of green space. Over time, much of that land was developed to "poor" standards. Now we have ugly strip malls lining many of our major streets.

Our community should have high standards for everything we undertake. But Anchorage for too long has had the attitude of a frontier town, where less regulation is best. If we want to attract businesses to move from the Lower 48 to Anchorage and diversify our economy, we should look like a city that cares about "quality of life," which includes our built environment. We simply cannot rely on our trail system and easy access to nature to do the job.

Title 21 will have an impact on our community for decades to come. I reject that stronger regulation would be too costly. First, due to our distance from the Lower 48, Anchorage has little competition. It makes it much easier for businesses, including builders and developers, to succeed. Yet Outside cities have much stronger design requirements. Better standards inevitably increase resale value. Second, we pay the lowest overall combined tax (including state, property, sales and city) nationwide for a city our size. Finally, the cost to change, fix or live with the consequences of bad decisions in the future will be the most expensive of all.

One example in Title 21 that should be strengthened is incentives to encourage retention of natural vegetation and stop developers from stripping their land. Anchorage is effectively an Arctic desert. It is difficult for new landscaping that is not nurtured to survive. Our weather is extreme; cold temperatures, strong winds, a lack of rain, and moose make it very difficult for new plantings. Few if any landscaped areas end up with watering systems. As a result, we see dead and dying plants around town. Most times they don't get replaced. Results: ugly.

Retained, mature, existing vegetation is less expensive and lasts. The stripped land presents its own problem. Oftentimes this land is undeveloped for years. Then, every time we have a windy day our community has increased health problems due to increased dust from denuded vacant land. And it is ugly.

Other standards to keep include stream setbacks of 50 feet (we are fortunate to have salmon in our streams), protection of sunlight into residential areas near business districts, encouragement of mixed-use development and sidewalks, integrity of zoning districts and much more. I remind the Assembly that builders and developers are incentivized to speak out and participate because it impacts their work and income. When the community speaks there is no financial gain for these individuals.

Send in comments to the Assembly. Urge them to extend the public comment period on Title 21. Let us keep the intent and vision of the 2010 provisionally adopted plan. Anchorage should take the time to get it right.

Robin Smith is a former member of the Urban Design Commission.