OPINION: Why I support Anchorage zoning reforms

I encourage adoption of the HOME Title 21 zoning code update, and here is why.

On March 29, I stood in the sunlit common room of the new Block 96 apartments on 8th Avenue and K Street listening to Shaun and Megan Debenham share an emotional story of collective hard work in building 44 new market-rate housing units. Special thanks went to everyone involved in the project, including Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA), the Municipality of Anchorage and a local Anchorage bank, all willing to share the risk.

After the congratulatory remarks, I visited with Chris Schutte, former Anchorage Downtown Partnership Executive Director and my former director during the Berkowitz administration. Chris and I had big dreams back in 2015 for “Our Downtown,” what we ultimately called the recently adopted Downtown Plan. To accomplish our dreams for the area, we wrote Smart Growth America (SGA), asking for support in creating new economic development tools for Anchorage. SGA arrived in May 2016 to jointly facilitate a community workshop with the Planning Department. Workshop recommendations included “Focus the Effort,” and use of municipal property at 7th Avenue and I Street to catalyze development. “A Few Good Blocks,” an area bounded by 9th and 5th avenues, and L to I streets became that focused effort. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz approved the concept and as they say, we were off to the races.

Elizabeth Place was built at 7th Avenue and I Street. The Duke’s remodel to Qanchi Place followed. Thank you, Cook Inlet Housing Authority. The Alaska Railroad started the rail townhouse project. Wow!

Fire Island Bakery followed. Eleven other new businesses will soon move to Downtown. Mark Begich and partners are renovating the Post Office Mall (Blue Building) and Aviator Hotel. Peach Investments’ projects on 4th and 5th avenues are another success story. The 6th Avenue Garage may be renovated soon by ACDA. Mayor Dave Bronson and the Assembly, especially Chris Constant and Dr. Daniel Volland, keep progress moving in meeting the “Our Downtown” vision.

Municipal contributions included “Our Downtown: Anchorage Downtown District Plan, 2022,” with action items and tools for progress. A new Title 21, “Chapter 11: Downtown” (A.O. 2023-44) followed removing unnecessary code requirements. It’s now easier and more cost-effective to build. The plan and code projects were my responsibility to complete with a team of experts who used the code daily and intrinsically understood its issues and strengths.

Our community is in the process of amending sections of Title 21. It’s a project called HOME. Is HOME perfect? I can’t say, but it is a great first step. HOME is patterned after the Downtown code. HOME is intended to make it easier and more cost-effective to build. There may be some fixes after HOME is adopted. We had to make fixes on the Downtown code after it was adopted. Why is this important? We need HOME to support new investment in Anchorage, just like the updated code for Downtown has helped with extensive new development in Downtown.


Back to the Block 96 Flats, no project is possible without those willing to take on risk. Investing your family’s savings coupled with large bank loans is a monumental personal risk. Public/private partnerships with ACDA and the Municipality helped alleviate some of the risks. We need to support those who take on risk. They are incrementally fulfilling the desperate need we have for housing. One of the ways to do that is to fix the Title 21 code.

Chris Schutte and I parted ways March 29, agreeing Smart Growth America would be really proud of the progress made in “Our Downtown.”

Kristine Bunnell is a former planning manager for the Municipality of Anchorage.

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