Housing alone won’t revitalize downtown Anchorage

  • Author: Allen Kemplen
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 5
  • Published March 5

Downtown Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

The vitality of Anchorage's downtown area is a recent topic of civic discussion. Charles Wohlforth, a past city assemblyman for the area, has raised questions about its future. Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, says that things are about to change for the better. Halcro says new housing, including mixed-use construction in the downtown area, will turn things around by putting people on the evening streets. Will the projects touted by Halcro indeed lead to greater vitality downtown? They do represent new investment, so that is progress. But are the returns on this investment sufficient to overcome the issues raised by Wohlforth?

I submit the new housing initiatives will not by themselves restore the vitality of the downtown area. In fact, I assert there is a significant risk that such investment could turn sour, with permanent negative ramifications for the future prosperity of the downtown area. What justifies such a statement and why advance a downbeat view of this obvious progress?

The municipality and community leaders in general have not come to grips with the structural issues that hold back the wheels of progress for the downtown area. What are these structural issues? There are at least four:

1. Outmoded concept of our "downtown" area.

2. An urban core sliced apart by inter-regional traffic.

3. Woeful lack of good winter-city design.

4. The institutional support for a social services slum.

First, cities across America use the term "downtown" to refer to the historical core of the incorporated municipality. In Anchorage it was used to refer to the commercial heart of the community as concentrated in the central business district. I encourage folks to look at a subdivision map of the Anchorage Bowl. Try and identify another part of town that has the gridded street pattern and the short blocks with alleys laid out by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1900s. This is the pattern associated with traditional towns whose intent was to make it easy for people to walk from homes to downtown.

As Anchorage has grown to encompass the width and breadth of the Bowl, our concept of downtown has stayed relatively static. An updated vision for downtown would stretch from Orca Street on the east to Cook Inlet and run between the two creeks (Chester and Ship). The arbitrary drawing of an administrative line while ignoring geography creates a structural mismatch that results in patchwork solutions. As Anchorage has grown, so too must the community's notion of downtown. Prosperity for the downtown area cannot be separated from solutions that create prosperity for the entire urban core, including the Fairview neighborhood.

Second, the commercial heart of the community has moved. It is no longer in one specific geographical space. High-rise office buildings, which form the nucleus of most vibrant metropolitan downtowns, have popped up in the Midtown area. This has robbed the urban core of economic energy. These developments occurred in great part because lower land prices and easy transportation access created incentives too great for developers to resist.  The heart of our city is no longer the principle location for business. Instead it caters to visitors and allowed itself to be cut asunder by high-volume arterials moving people through downtown, with very few stopping to add value. These arterial streets create barriers to establishing a sense of pedestrian space and human scale. The downtown public realm is buffeted by their noise and pollution. This is especially acute in the area of east downtown along Gambell and Ingra streets. The high-speed arterial couplets are great at moving large volumes of regional traffic. But they can distort the public realm, twisting it into an uncomfortable, unappealing and often unsafe space. Future residents of the new housing developments may not appreciate the disconnect between expectations for a quality urban experience and the realities of streets designed for machines rather than people and lined mostly by businesses that shut down when the tourists leave.

Third, the downtown streets are busy in the summer with tourist's predominately along 4th Avenue where design has emphasized the pedestrian scale. Other public streets west of Cordova Street are tolerable. During the six months of winter however the public realm in the downtown area is an inhospitable space. Deep, dark shadows create a cold and unwelcoming streetscape. Where tall buildings exist with walls up to the sidewalk, wintry winds swirl menacingly around the pedestrian forcing them to hurry quickly toward the safety of the nearest building. While Anchorage once actively promoted itself as a leader in efforts to build a more livable winter city, it has lost its way. The lack of attention to urban design appropriate for the subarctic has created a downtown where the streets are unpleasant to walk along for at least half of the year. The new housing developments may only mean there will be more people feeling dissatisfied with the quality of the downtown sense of winter space.

Fourth, incremental decisions over the years by community leaders to locate primary support services and facilities for the chronic public inebriate, mentally ill and low-income homeless in the eastern half of the urban core has established an extended physical plant exuding civic pollution into the public realms of downtown. The excessive concentration of emotionally and mentally challenged individuals exceeds the carrying capacity of the downtown area. The heart of our city is struggling to keep itself healthy under the daily assault of ill-mannered people with little respect for themselves, for others, for property and particularly not for the public realm of our commons. Pollution from a heavy industrial plant can swiftly expand beyond the property lines, so too the civic pollution generated by the industrial scale development of these social support facilities. It is not likely that new residents brought into the downtown area will have a magic wand given to them at final mortgage closing to make this civic pollution magically disappear.

A prosperous downtown filled with positive energies is in the best interests of the entire Anchorage community. New housing initiatives under the leadership of Halcro are a step forward. But achieving true vitality for the heart of our winter city must fully address the issues raised by Wohlforth and overcome the urban core's structural challenges.

Allen Kemplen is vice president of the Fairview Community Council, former two-term state representative, a former member of the Urban Design Commission and a longtime supporter of the livable winter-cities movement.