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Proposed tweaks to Anchorage land use regulations draw praise and concern

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 11, 2015

How Anchorage will look and feel decades from now is one of the core themes of the city's new land use regulations, adopted in early 2013 after a decadelong rewrite process.

Since then, the Anchorage Assembly has made only minor changes to the new regulations. But a package of proposed amendments coming before the Assembly Tuesday represent more significant policy updates, designed to allow taller apartments and spur redevelopment and infill in neighborhoods near major transit corridors and the employment centers of downtown and Midtown.

The changes, which affect building standards for new apartments, townhouses and condos, come after complaints from developers and architects that the rewritten land use regulations, which took effect Jan. 1, are too burdensome and expensive. City planners also say they unearthed problems while reviewing projects under the rewritten regulations.

"The proposed ordinance provides clarity and certainty for builders, while maintaining the standards that make our neighborhoods great places to live," Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said in a statement introducing the ordinance last month. The ordinance is co-sponsored by Assembly members Ernie Hall, Jennifer Johnston, Amy Demboski and Bill Evans.

The proposed ordinance increases the maximum height for apartment buildings to 70 feet, up from 45 feet. It eases building requirements that include parking, landscaping and distance between the edge of the property and a building.

The ordinance would also change a rule that limits the construction of tall buildings next to shorter ones, and instead tie such decisions to future, denser zoning charted in the city's still-forthcoming update to its land use plan map.. In many places, the legislation gives department directors discretion to waive requirements for projects with "special circumstances."

Both nonprofit and for-profit developers support the changes and say they are necessary to allow good projects to come forward.

But some neighborhood advocates beg to differ, saying the proposed changes would threaten the character of residential neighborhoods like South Addition and winter sunlight access for homeowners.

Cheryl Richardson, director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition and a South Addition resident, said she supports the construction of more housing, just not in residential neighborhoods where it would block winter sunlight access for existing homeowners.

"It's premature to put six-story buildings in two-story residential neighborhoods," Richardson said.

She also criticized the ordinance as being "crafted behind closed doors," though Berkowitz administration officials and Assembly members defended it as the product of a series of public meetings that began last fall.

The ordinance up for public hearing on Tuesday, Anchorage Ordinance 2015-100, merges two ordinances introduced earlier this summer, with the help of the Berkowitz administration.

"This is really a compromise," said Assembly member Jennifer Johnston, who has served on the Assembly's Title 21 committee.

Erika McConnell, director of the city's Current Planning division, said that while planners talked to developers about concerns, they also talked to designers who weren't working on particular projects, and looked at the city's own reviews of projects to identify issues. For the last year, developers have had the option of choosing between the "new" set of regulations and the "old" set, an option that goes away this coming January.

Only a handful of multifamily housing developers have chosen the new regulations. But two projects developed by Cook Inlet Housing Authority, an Anchorage-based nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, helped planners identify parts of the new regulations that were confusing or didn't achieve a desired effect, McConnell said. One of the projects has been completed, and the other is in construction.

In a statement Friday, Jeff Judd, the executive vice president of real estate at Cook Inlet Housing Authority, said the nonprofit supports the Berkowitz administration proposal.

"AO 2015-100 makes important and realistic changes; changes suggested by builders, developers and designers, as a result of designing real projects to the new code, which in real world application have resulted in perhaps some unintended consequences, simply adding cost or complexity, without achieving the stated intent of the code," Judd said in the statement.

He reiterated complaints that have come from other developers, that the "prescriptive" nature of the code made design difficult.

Johnston and McConnell both said the new ordinance aims to add more flexibility while still protecting communities.

"It's not taking the intent away," Johnston said of the proposed changes.

Chris Schutte, director of the Office of Economic and Community Development, said those with concerns about neighborhood impacts are encouraged to testify at the Tuesday Assembly meeting.

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