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New plan calls for flatter, greener Town Square Park in Anchorage geared toward activity

2019 Town Square Park Master Plan

New plans call for making Town Square Park in downtown Anchorage flatter and greener, with a children’s play area, a stage and a food truck court, in hopes of curbing crime and making the park more inviting.

A draft master plan, unveiled earlier this month, charts out the next 20 years for Town Square Park. The green space and plaza opened in 1991 as an urban oasis but has declined, plagued by open drug use and disorder in the past decade, officials say. Some have said the park no longer feels safe and welcoming to everyone.

Some longtime park activists, though, say the new proposal goes too far in destroying Town Square Park’s intended purpose as a refuge from urban city life.

“I am not in favor of designing public spaces for whatever the current social problem may be,” said Dianne Holmes, a citizen advisory committee member who has long been involved in activism around the park. “These conditions change, but then what is the public left with?”

Through a proposed $5.4 million renovation, the current layout of Town Square Park would remain largely unchanged. But crumbling concrete would be swapped out for more lawn space. A play area would be built next to the Kobuk Coffee Co., and a bowl and hill in the northeast corner would be turned into a wheelchair-friendly path. The plan also calls for a food truck and market area and a covered performance stage.

Town Square Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

One of the more significant changes would come to the park’s rolling green berms, which police and others say tend to hide illegal activity. The plan calls for the berms be lowered to half the current height, from about 7-8 feet to about 3-4 feet.

The plan is the culmination of several years of intensive discussions, surveying and workshops. The administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz made “reimagining” the park a priority.

During the planning effort, two competing visions emerged, said city park planner Steve Rafuse.

Older residents and park advocates like Holmes wanted fervently to preserve a quiet, contemplative oasis, Rafuse said. In the 1980s, activists Ruth Moulton and Laine Fleischer, alarmed by the city’s rapid urbanization, led a battle to protect the land from development and create the park. Their friends have fought ever since to preserve it.

Single young people and young parents, meanwhile, wanted a lively square geared toward events and activities, Rafuse said.

Standing in the park Wednesday morning, Rafuse pointed to the concrete staircase and bowl that rises up into the northeast corner. To many, the park felt empty, cold and uninviting most of the time, with too much concrete, said Rafuse.

Rafuse has two young children himself and wonders how to get more families in the park.

“We’ve got to find middle ground,” Rafuse said.

Steve Rafuse, a senior planner with the Municipality of Anchorage Parks and Recreation department, discusses the newest plan for the public space at Town Square Park that is based on community input on changes they would like to see happen at the park. Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The new master plan incorporates ideas and designs from urban park renewals in other cities, including New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The plan calls for a round artistic space inspired by Athabascan seasonal traditions, which would be part of efforts to give Town Square Park a stronger cultural identity, Rafuse said. No new restrooms are included in the conceptual design, but the plan offers several options, from permanent to portable facilities.

Planners generally want to create a design that makes the park feel safe, vibrant and welcoming, Rafuse said.

By the summer of 2016, officials believed too many people were camping, drinking and using drugs in the park. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered a broken concrete fountain to be removed, calling it a “hiding spot” for illegal activity. Police have advocated for fewer hills and a more open space. The city has also removed and limbed trees over the years, to the dismay of park and gardening advocates.

The number of police responses within one block of Town Square has steadily declined in the past six years overall. Fire responses spiked in 2015 and 2016, during a well-publicized uptick in the use of the synthetic drug spice but have since plummeted.

Even so, there’s a perception that the park isn’t safe, Rafuse said. In one graphic in the draft master plan, workshop participants reported largely feeling “bad/uncomfortable” in the central areas of the park. Inconsistent maintenance and management over the years has led to a gritty, worn-out feel.

Holmes, the longtime park advocate, wants the berms to stay the same height. She was also skeptical about the placement of other features like the play area and the stage and a small hill referred to as “the Knoll.” She said she worries about destroying a cherished public space.

“We’re leveling it too much,” Holmes said.

While some unwanted activities, like camping in the park, are associated with homelessness, homelessness itself is not a crime, Holmes added.

She said she does agree there’s too much concrete and too little lighting in the park.

Town Square Park after sunset on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, as the Christmas tree lights cast a warm glow at dusk. (Bill Roth / ADN)

By revitalizing the park, officials also hope to spur redevelopment in the surrounding area, which has already been seeing investment and change in recent years. Down the street, the former downtown transit center is on track to be turned into a restaurant, hotel and housing, and Elizabeth Place, a mixed-income rental housing development, is under construction a few blocks away.

The city is taking public comments on the plan, which heads to the Parks and Recreation Commission later this month.

It isn’t clear exactly when the renovations might occur, if at all. The plan suggests a mix of public, private and philanthropic resources, though the state faces a fiscal crisis and money is tight now.

Renovations to the park would be a “tough sell” now amid competing priorities, Rafuse said. But that could always change in the coming years, he said.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify a comment by Dianne Holmes about the park’s relationship with homeless residents.

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