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Business/Economy

Anchorage will require flexible, creative housing solutions as it ages

So much is happening and so much is possible. That was how we felt after recently chatting with Robin Ward, chief housing officer for the Municipality of Anchorage. We talked about the projects and incentives being used to help a maturing Anchorage, with limited resources, address its lack of affordable housing with smart growth for our changing demographics. With many needs vying for limited resources, the chief housing officer is tasked with channeling these resources into useful solutions.

For example, as Anchorage's needs have changed, the sea of paved parking lots downtown may no longer be the best use of those properties. Turning some of this space into a development of mixed uses may better meet Anchorage's needs. Mixed-use developments mesh housing and retail, and can bring increased revenue for a property.

Clearly, more affordable housing is needed. By 2030, nearly half of the city's population will be seniors (ages 60 and older) and people 20-39 years old. Individuals in these age groups are typically the most price-sensitive. They may value living space with storage more than parking, preferring a neighborhood's walkability where fewer cars are needed.

One project that might appeal to these populations is Elizabeth Place, downtown on Seventh Avenue between I and K streets. This project targets seniors and millennials with studios and one- and two-bedroom units, with storage but limited parking.

Another downtown project, proposed with retail and high-density housing, will be located between Eighth and Ninth avenues and D and E streets. This will possibly provide retail options below, with condos or apartments above, along with an area for workforce parking.

Consideration is also being given to redoing the existing downtown transit center. In its current configuration, it is easy to imagine retail on the bottom, with housing wrapped around the perimeter and another four to five levels above.

The most ambitious redevelopment project is the 13-acre Tudor Municipal Campus at Tudor and Elmore roads. The area is prime real estate but currently underutilized for school bus storage. Just imagine a new anchor tenant being a 70,000-square-foot grocery, with medical office buildings and housing — seven to eight floors of hotel, condos and apartments with dramatic views — occupying the rest of the acreage. A new Department of Health and Human Services building will also be a part of this project.

Whatever the final designs of these projects, additional thoughts should be given to installing rooftop gardens to bring back green spaces in urban settings. A Canadian study showed rooftop gardens help minimize the urban-heat-island effect. Additional benefits include saving energy by moderating interior temperatures, stabilizing roof contractions and expansions, plus decreasing water runoff. Best of all is an increased sense of community and pride of ownership.

One likely impact of these new developments is competition with existing rentals. Tenants will move to locations that offer safer and better-maintained units. They may also be attracted to mixed-use developments where they can walk and shop, rather than drive. Current landlords will need to become more competitive, in price and amenities, to hold on to their tenants.

To encourage private investments and participation, new incentives have been developed. First is the creation of a unit-lot subdivision ordinance. This allows fee simple ownership in a multifamily development on lots of less than 6,000 square feet. The fee simple ownership allows individual units to obtain financing and to record as properties are completed, instead of waiting until 70 percent of the units are sold.

In process are two additional incentives. First is updating the accessory dwelling unit code to expand parameters to fit into more zoning areas and within each neighborhood. This allows currently illegal ADUs to potentially comply. The second is a draft for new R3A zoning, which would allow for mixed-use higher density developments along the edges of an area.

Finally, some changes could allow the municipality more flexibility when using tax abatements by easing the criteria. This flexibility is particularly important with newly platted subdivisions by allowing developers to pay a lower underlying property tax for five years or until a certificate of occupancy is issued – instead of paying taxes on the value of each individual building under construction.

All the projects and incentives focus on how Anchorage will meet its housing challenges. We can't increase buildable acreage, but we can boost housing affordability with additional developments and supporting infrastructures. Enhanced walkability and good infrastructure are a must for smart growth success and to help overcome resistance to living in high-density, mixed-use areas.

Also important is that projects cannot rely on state funds; we must be creative to create our own stimulus and prosperity. We will need flexibility to accept the needed changes as our mid-size city grows older, while still holding on to the amenities that make Alaska unique.

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