OPINION: Anchorage needs more housing. We can build more without making Anchorage just a cheap place to sleep.

We in Anchorage have a housing shortage that is causing well-known problems. This has been recognized since “Anchorage 2020,” a guiding planning document, was written in 2000. Building on “Anchorage 2020” and a plethora of other plans since 2000, our most recent core land use plan, the “2040 Land Use Plan,” was adopted in 2017 with an emphasis on addressing the housing crisis. These plans and important follow-up work by the Assembly are moving Anchorage towards more housing.

As we move towards making building easier, we need to watch that Anchorage doesn’t become just a cheap place to sleep. We can have the housing we need, as well as the nice variety of neighborhoods we enjoy now. A recent misguided proposal in AO 2023-66 to narrow the variety of residential zones to two is unlikely to achieve its stated goals and will work against a number of them. Abruptly changing zoning to create a city with essentially homogenous neighborhoods is not something residents have supported.

AO 2023-66 seems to seek a path to more multifamily structures — the missing middle. This is unlikely. Land cost is of decreasing importance as the number of units increases. More likely, builders will simply build single-family homes as usual though on smaller lots. Oddly, it also states that it will decrease sprawl while doing the opposite by opening the Hillside, Turnagain Arm and Eagle River to small lots with apartment complexes.

[Assembly members propose sweeping overhaul of zoning rules to address Anchorage housing shortage]

Our current plans emphasize efficient use of our existing infrastructure through a town center concept. Areas around places like the Abbott, Huffman and Spenard town centers have higher density zoning surrounding them and decreasing density moving outward. We have smart provisions for mixed-use and higher density along road corridors with efficient transit. These plans are working.

While AO 2023-66 implies deceptive simplicity, the transition would be extremely complex. It states that in 18 months all the many details can be sorted out. Our last overhaul of the code took 10 years. The complexity of rolling back our residential zones is immense — setbacks, stream buffers, lot sizes, heights, massing — what will happen to the mixed-use residential zones? Would a house on a 6,000 square foot lot hooked up to public sewer and on a shared well be R or ROUS zoning? Nothing is simple.

AO 2023-66 and a recent opinion in the June 23 ADN by Janet McCabe wrongly state that our land use code is decades old and out of sync. In fact, our land use code is fairly new having gone fully into effect in 2015 after 10 years of earnest community conversation. The code was revised in response to the guidance in “Anchorage 2020.″ In 2017, adoption of the new 2040 Land Use Plan further set the stage for more housing while also increasing the variety for neighborhoods and protecting the character of existing neighborhoods.


The proposal in AO 2023-66 stands on tenuous ground. State law and Anchorage code require that our land-use code follow the guidance of our adopted plans. None of our adopted plans point towards creating homogenous neighborhoods. In fact, the Assembly received in May a white paper summarizing all Anchorage adopted plans’ guidance on housing and the thrust of it is more types of residential zones and protection of existing neighborhoods.

There is no simple solution to increasing housing. The legal requirement that our code follows our plans forces the process into a broad community discussion rather than obscure procedures over a few summer months. AO 2023-66 gets one thing right — we do need a community conversation on housing. The parameters of that conversation are in our code and point to starting a new process for Anchorage 2050, a new core planning document. That is the process that will lead to a plan for more housing while maintaining the qualities we love about Anchorage.

John Weddleton has been involved with Anchorage land-use planning for over 20 years, including a stint on the Planning and Zoning Commission during the rewrite of our land-use code, and as chair of the Anchorage Assembly’s Community and Economic Development Committee for all of his six years on the Assembly.

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