New Anchorage land rules encourage more housing, taller apartments

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night approved changes to new city land use regulations aimed at allowing taller apartments and encouraging redevelopment.

The amendments affect building standards for new apartments, townhouses and condos, from height limitations to landscaping to zoning. The ordinance passed 8-1, with Assembly member Patrick Flynn opposed and two Assembly members absent.

"(This is) about a city that's maturing and a city that's running out of land," Chris Schutte, director of the city's Office of Economic and Community Development, said after the meeting.

Developers and architects have said the city's new land use regulations, which took effect Jan. 1, 2014 after a decade-long rewrite process, are too prescriptive and expensive. City planners also say they unearthed confusing issues while reviewing apartment projects, or elements of the regulations that weren't accomplishing what they were supposed to.

Changes in the ordinance adopted Tuesday night include an increase in the maximum height for apartment buildings to 70 feet from 45 feet and more discretion for department directors in waiving requirements for projects to accommodate special circumstances.

The ordinance also changes a rule that limits the construction of tall buildings next to shorter ones. Instead, such decisions will be tied to future denser zoning charted in a long-awaited update to the city's land use plan map, which is set to be introduced for public review later this month.

The ordinance, Anchorage Ordinance 2015-100, merges two ordinances introduced earlier this summer with the help of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's administration. It was co-sponsored by Anchorage Assembly members Ernie Hall, Jennifer Johnston, Amy Demboski and Bill Evans.

Flynn said he voted against the ordinance because he thought it was premature to make changes before the regulations had been fully put in place. For the past two years, developers and architects have had the option of choosing either the new regulations or the "old" regulations, an option that goes away at the end of this year.

But Flynn's colleagues -- Hall, Johnston and Demboski -- said the ordinance was a step in the right direction.

"We're going to be living (under this ordinance) beginning Jan. 1," said Hall, who was present over the phone. "We need to correct this so we can have our contractors be able to work with it."

Demboski praised the legislation as collaborative, noting numerous Assembly committee meetings in recent months. Supporters of the ordinance included Cook Inlet Housing Authority, an Anchorage nonprofit that promotes affordable housing and recently completed the city's first apartment project under the new regulations.

The Assembly adopted several amendments introduced by Demboski, mostly tweaks to rules for weather protection and sunlight in a northern climate. The Assembly also adopted a Demboski amendment to allow developers to propose an alternative way to comply with the regulations if their plans are between 10 and 15 percent completed.

A few people testified at the meeting, including Sheila Selkregg, a former Assembly member and city planning director. Selkregg called the regulations the "DNA for the community" and warned about increasing density without a clear strategy.

"I'm very sympathetic to developers that are struggling with this code, but I'm also very sympathetic to the public in general," Selkregg told the Assembly. "We've dropped away and let go of a lot of the things that ensure that that new density is quality."

Selkregg said she's concerned about tying infill and redevelopment to the city's forthcoming land use map rather than current regulations.

John Weddleton, a former Planning and Zoning commissioner who is running for a South Anchorage Assembly seat, told the Assembly the legislation allows apartment buildings next to single-family homes without "any real accommodation" for potential impacts.

While Tuesday's Assembly action was a significant piece of the puzzle, it's not the last word, Schutte said. Schutte predicted that by the second quarter of 2016, the city will likely be back before the Assembly with more suggested changes.

By then, building season will be in full swing, and more developers and architects will be working through the new regulations, Schutte said.

"Come Jan. 1," Schutte said, "we're going to be in severe analysis mode."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date that Anchorage's new land use regulations took effect. It was Jan. 1, 2014, not Jan. 1, 2015.