OPINION: Why planners routed a highway through Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood

After Alex DeMarban’s April 30 article on the Gambell/Ingra couplet, I would like to offer some historical context. Most importantly, the decision to divide the Fairview community with an expanded Gambell and Ingra streets was made with the conscious knowledge that it would negatively affect the neighborhood.

When Gambell Street was paved in 1960, it was one of the few paved streets connecting downtown Anchorage to residential developments farther south. As it also served as the primary connection between the Seward Highway and links to the Glenn Highway, the street was heavily trafficked and frequently congested.

Still, when city planners in 1961 envisioned a future Anchorage, they proposed to link the two highways via an expanded Orca Street along the community’s easternmost border, between Fairview and Merrill Field. While this new road would have bypassed neighborhood businesses, it would have also eased area residential traffic, increased pedestrian safety, and preserved the neighborhood.

In the 1980 Anchorage, Alaska Metropolitan Area General Plan, published in 1961, the planners explained at great length that their foremost concern as regards thoroughfares was to maintain existing economic and community centers. They wrote, “The greatest harm occurs when these fundamental blocks are split into two parts by such a route. Insofar as possible, freeways have been directed around major sub-communities in the metropolitan area. Where they bisect a large area, each of the urban segments has been designated to be large enough to maintain essential community characteristics.”

Consideration for Fairview residents changed before planning could meaningfully advance, as all local plans were altered by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. In the wake of the disaster, city leaders devised new long-term designs for Anchorage. Rather than expand Orca Street, a plan deemed too expensive, the city proposed a route directly through the heart of the community, to expand Gambell and Ingra streets into a major traffic corridor. The city’s 1965 Neighborhood Planning Program explicitly acknowledged the negative impact of such an expansion for Fairview, that the corridor would “cut the neighborhood and create an island two blocks wide and ten blocks long.” The city completed land purchases around the existing traffic corridor in 1965, and construction began soon after.

Originally scheduled to finish in 1967, the project was completed early and opened in 1966 with a computerized system monitoring traffic and controlling the lights. The entire project, including lights and sidewalks, cost $1.6 million, roughly $15 million in 2023 dollars. Gambell and Ingra streets emerged in their modern form, with four lanes of one-way traffic each. Each street had previously been two-way, and despite notices and maps in the local news, many drivers drove the wrong way for days after the streets reopened.

As predicted, the Gambell/Ingra corridor sharply divided the community. Functionally, a major highway was installed through the heart of a primarily residential community. In the 2015 “An Oral and Written History of Fairview: Past, Present, & Future,” a resident said, “they put the freeway through there, it knocked out a lot of the businesses, you know, (made it) difficult to walk across the street. There was no consultation with the neighborhood. They just came in and bulldozed it and set it up.” “That kind of divides Fairview a little bit,” said another resident, “because you’ve got people who live on one side of Ingra and Gambell.”


Many modern Fairview problems today can be traced back to this decision. A harshly and unsafely divided neighborhood was less appealing to homebuyers and renters. Residents there were increasingly transient, with decreased ties to the community and its history. Some landlords became slumlords, failing to reinvest or simply maintain their properties.

As a result, Fairview was the only Anchorage neighborhood that saw its average income decline during the heyday of pipeline construction in the 1970s. From 1975 to 1976, the average annual income in the community dropped from $26,000, roughly $141,000 in 2023 dollars, to $19,600, $101,000 in 2023. As income in the neighborhood continued to decline, crime increased.

The poorer, less appealing community lacked political power. While several Fairview residents ran for political office during the 1960s and 1970s, none succeeded. The old Anchorage Times once dryly noted, Fairview was “not traditionally a breeding ground for councilmen.” Faith in government declined, followed by a decline in political participation. With little sway over decision-making, the neighborhood was also diversely zoned, from single-family homes to apartment complexes, from small to large businesses, from light to heavy industry.

Residents complain, with justification, that city planners have more carefully preserved the internal integrity of other Anchorage neighborhoods, typically more affluent and now more homogenous. During the 1960s and 1970s, Fairview dramatically changed. Many longtime residents just didn’t recognize their neighborhood anymore. In a 1978 series obviously intended to positively portray the community, the Anchorage Times still said, “life in Fairview is a matter of economic necessity.”

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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