OPINION: Let Anchorage’s finest neighborhoods grow

Zoning codes emerged in the early 20th century as a tool to mitigate effects of heavy industry and skyscrapers on residents’ clean air and daylight in the biggest U.S. cities. In the following decades, the tool expanded into a practice of comprehensively categorizing property into fine use gradations in almost every community across the country. With the emergence of automobiles, we could afford for everything to be farther apart, and the idea of sorting functions — and as a result, people — into assigned districts, felt like a clean, modern approach. Residentially, it meant people could participate in the commerce of cities like Anchorage while driving home to more space and quiet countryside flavor than had ever previously been practical.

Founded in 1914, Anchorage is shaped almost entirely by these 20th century practices, and until recently, we haven’t had much reason to question it. We had enough land to send successive waves of population down the road to former homesteads south of town, maintaining a firm commitment that existing neighborhoods would never grow. But as we approach the end of our convenient land, Assembly members are rightly reconsidering that commitment in their current HOME initiative.

Opponents of the initiative point out that other areas were designated for higher densities in the last zoning overhaul, saying more development in established neighborhoods is unnecessary. They want to focus new development on blighted — poorer — neighborhoods that deserve the boost. Yet the idea that we can simply guide development toward areas with less appeal feels less plausible as our local economy cools. New development in blighted areas really only happens through government subsidies or in an economic boom, as with gentrification. The current zoning vision was negotiated during a historic boom, when we thought we could take our plentiful flow of development and point it in just the right directions to “level up” to Anchorage 2.0. Today’s market is not capable of executing this vision, and we should expect that it won’t until another boom arrives — if another boom arrives.

If it doesn’t, we can’t be so picky. Redevelopment of the most appealing neighborhoods geared toward wealthier buyers can succeed with far lower overall market pressure. In the 2010s, market-rate multifamily development persisted in South Addition and Bootleggers Cove after it had ceased in less prosperous neighborhoods. I participated in developments at that time that earnestly strove to offer starter homes, but inevitably gravitated toward higher-end buyers to make the development viable. That kind of buyer is happiest to buy into already desirable neighborhoods, and we could likely get more homes overall by allowing more units in neighborhoods with the highest market demand. Adding supply there relieves purchasing pressure elsewhere, easing the escalation of rents and prices to keep starter homes in third- and fourth-rate neighborhoods attainable.

Greater than the fear that neighborhood character will be compromised with density, we should fear the prospect of fewer people bothering to settle in Anchorage at all. If we remain committed to constricting supply as technologies like online vacation rentals boost demand, the basic economics ensure that the cost to buy into Anchorage will rise even with a stagnant population and properties falling into disrepair.

Fellow single-family homeowners, look beyond your desire for predictability. We are using zoning to extend our influence too far beyond our own property lines and even beyond our own lifespans.

Republicans, you should object to continuing this technocratic control and red tape — a constriction of landowner freedom and an impediment to our ability to address our housing needs through private action. Democrats should recognize the obvious ways in which “haves” use municipal zoning code as a giant homeowners’ association to secure investments at the expense of the “have-nots” and the common good.


Whatever your politics, preserving the character of chintzy, light-framed suburbs in the middle of this nascent city is foolish. Anchorage will likely carry on for centuries from now, and It doesn’t make sense for the first comers to set the options for all time, especially in the most convenient and central neighborhoods. Let’s use the Assembly’s HOME initiative to help identify the best ways for density to transpire in the neighborhoods we love.

Assembly members are absolutely right to take a more direct role in zoning and seek new avenues for our city’s evolution. Our new mayor should similarly adopt zoning as a live issue, not presuming the wisdom of the status quo, which remains laden with the ambitions of 2008. While people will come out of the woodwork to prophesize ruin, we could live just as well with a Title 21 that was half as long and a new fourplex on every other corner.

Anchorage is an adolescent city. If, like me, you want to give it more room to mature, let the Assembly know at wwmas@muni.org. Please additionally consider expressing your view at the May 21 or June 25 public hearing dates. Phone testimony can be arranged by signing up online 24 hours ahead of the meeting. Thank you for your time.

Miles Garrod is an architect and lifelong Anchorage resident.

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