Chris Stephens: Constructing new buildings with no setback is mistake

Chris Stephens

Anchorage is a special place with a natural setting rivaling that of any other city in the world. The development of our city should embrace this wonderful asset. Instead we are making a terrible mistake by adopting a development idea from the Lower 48: constructing buildings right next to the street with no setbacks.

Anchorage's revised land use code, Title 21, is being considered by the Assembly. The new code includes rules about how buildings are aligned to streets, and those requirements badly need to be reconsidered.

City planners are encouraging a pedestrian orientation and want to reduce distances from sidewalks to buildings. In downtown and other high-density areas, where people walk between buildings, this makes some sense.

But it makes no sense in the rest of Anchorage. The rest of Anchorage is suburban or rural, where there is no walking environment during our winter weather.

Just try to walk around Midtown right now. It's impossible to keep sidewalks plowed and ice-free. Combined with fast traffic, the clogged sidewalks create a dangerous walking environment.

Buildings right next to the street are not nearly as attractive as buildings with reasonable, well-designed setbacks. Here's a test. Drive down C Street from Benson Boulevard to 36th Avenue. Look to your left and your right. Which scene would you rather look at?

On the left is Northrim Bank and the Calais Office Center. The buildings are pulled back from the street just far enough for guest parking in front. They have attractive landscaping, which even in the dead of winter is attractive and in the summer is very nice. On the right side of the street, the buildings are pushed right up to the asphalt.

Crowding buildings next to the streets creates canyons. If we keep building them right next to the streets, we're going to end up with corridors of buildings you can't see beyond. We will drive down streets that look like other cities that lack our world-class setting.

Look at 36th Avenue between C and A streets. The Frontier Building on the south is right up to the edge of 36th, creating a canyon wall. On the other side of the street is First National Bank, which has a little setback and landscaping, but yet the street ends up a dark corridor. The unattractive parking garage is right next to 36th and C streets.

Compare this to the new buildings on the west side of C Street south of 36th. They are set back from C Street with nice landscaping.

Worse yet, some of the street-crowding buildings look awful. They're backwards. The attractive entrance is on the parking lot side while the street side has the unattractive utility meters and service entrances. The other day I drove by one of these buildings and saw the janitor's mop bucket hanging out the service door with utility meters and a few spindly trees. Is that what we want look at?

A building code that forces a walking design in nonwalking areas with our winter environment and ignores our spectacular setting is a terrible mistake. Buildings last a long time, so it's important to get it right. We need to celebrate our Alaska environment with a code that fits Anchorage.

This is not rocket science. Look for yourself, the left side of C Street between Benson and 36th is far more attractive than the right.

Chris Stephens, CCIM, is a local associate broker specializing in commercial and investment real estate.

Chris Stephens
Real Estate