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UAA expansion plans should involve the people they will affect

Paul Stang

This is written on behalf of Friends of Goose Lake Park. We live next to the park near UAA Drive, a street largely bordered by greenways. Recently, several new University of Alaska Anchorage buildings have sprung up on campus.

Unfortunately, opportunities for public involvement in decisions about these buildings have been inadequate. As residents, we generally hear about new UAA buildings after the details are so solidified that public input, realistically, has little or no influence on the outcome.

UAA last updated its Master Plan in 2009. UAA now plans a new 500-car parking garage to be constructed on UAA Drive in an area designated in the Plan for “Academics.” This garage plan was presented to the four affected community councils in meetings between Nov. 7 and Dec. 20, 2012, and formally submitted to the Municipality of Anchorage the next day for approval.

Clearly, this expedited schedule didn’t allow enough time for the community to hear about the parking garage, get involved in a respectful exchange of views and submit comments that could influence the design or location. Apparently, UAA’s objective was not to seek public input, but simply to tell the community what is going to happen. Fortunately, the Muni provides at least a brief opportunity for public input at a hearing -- the Muni’s Urban Design Commission will review the garage plan at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, 2013, at the Assembly Chambers in Loussac Library and hear public comments.

UAA’s new 500-car parking garage will add more traffic to UAA Drive, which is already highly congested. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper during class changes, shift changes, and morning and evening rush hours. Road access to the university from the north remains limited to Lake Otis Parkway or UAA Drive. The expensive and very controversial 2011 Northern Access to U-Med District report laid out alternative proposals to relieve congestion. The state Department of Transportation and the Municipality have recently affirmed their commitment to proceed with a new road to campus from Northern Lights Boulevard. But in the meantime, the fundamental traffic problems will continue to grow. Drivers and pedestrians who use UAA Drive increasingly suffer the consequences.

High accident rates on and around UAA Drive are likely to increase. A DOT plan (No. 52119) is designed to reduce accident rates by adding lanes at the intersection of UAA Drive and Northern Lights Blvd. But these changes may be undermined by the increased traffic on UAA Drive heading to the new garage.

The pedestrian crosswalk just north of Providence Drive also causes numerous traffic back-ups on UAA Drive. This right of way is convenient for pedestrians, but cars must stop for every student or group of students. The nearby sky bridge goes largely unused. No solution has been provided to this chronic problem. Furthermore, many who park in the new garage will likely just walk straight across UAA Drive to get to an existing pedestrian path, further slowing traffic.

UAA should concentrate parking on the west side rather than scattering it around the current perimeter of campus. UAA could greatly reduce traffic by creating a public transit hub on the underutilized and already paved west side of campus and running shuttle buses more frequently. Goose Lake Park is a beautiful, peaceful community asset that is directly affected by the placement of nearby UAA buildings. UAA depends on state funding and thus should obtain a full picture of the potential impacts of its buildings on the community and environment. The new ConocoPhillips Science building is an excellent facility and architecturally pleasing from the front entrance. But the rear of the building, with its factory-like appearance and loud exhaust vent stacks, is a scar on the view from the park. The proposed 50-foot-tall parking garage that will be brightly lit in winter will also intrude on the park. UAA should pay as much attention to the view of its buildings from outside the campus as it does from within campus.

UAA should partner with the community. We support UAA and encourage responsible growth. We want to see a creative solution to the issue of northern access and a transparent, durable Master Plan with public hearings conducted by UAA and broader stakeholder involvement from the earliest stages to the final version. The plan should include better public transit to and within the campus, better pedestrian and vehicular safety, and low-rise parking garages located on existing parking lots.

UAA should maintain the remaining treed areas along UAA Drive and those visible from Goose Lake Park. These areas should not be viewed by UAA as the backside of campus in which to locate parking garages and service facilities. Rather, UAA should truly embrace these areas as beautiful, valuable assets.

Paul Stang is an energy and environmental consultant who lives in Anchorage near Goose Lake. Prior to starting Stang Consulting in 2007, he was a senior manager at the Department of the Interior.

The views expressed here are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.