OPINION: Past racism isn’t a reason to change Anchorage zoning laws

Progressive Anchorage Assembly members have expressed righteous indignation against racist land use planning as part of their initiative to relax zoning restrictions and encourage more housing. But that fight has very little to do with Anchorage.

On Monday, sponsors toned down their proposal, but even the version to be considered on June 25 is a big change, getting rid of zoning for single-family residences.

I don’t live in Alaska full-time anymore and I have no dog in this fight. Residents should get informed and decide for themselves.

But I served on the Assembly for six years and I know more about the city’s past than most, having written its official centennial history. I’ve also written extensively about redlining and racist zoning nationally, most recently in a book about health equity that was published two years ago.

There’s no question that white leaders of the past used community planning to promote segregation, generating inequality that persists today.

Just not much in Anchorage.

It’s possible to find counter-examples to that point. Some plats in the oldest parts of the city have racist covenants. There were some dreadful racial incidents related to housing.


If you go all the way back to the city’s founding, as a tiny frontier outpost, you can find lines excluding residents from certain areas because they were Alaska Native, Black, Eastern European or Scandinavian, although those rules were largely unwritten and simply part of pervasive racism in society.

That happened a century ago, when the Delaney Park Strip was a firebreak on the south end of town.

The ordinances recently targeted by the progressive Assembly members came generations later. The vast majority of Anchorage was zoned and built after the Civil Rights Movement and after the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed housing discrimination, including racial covenants. And its growth came with the leadership of some anti-racists as progressive as these current Assembly members.

[Assemblymembers Volland, Brawley and Zaletel: What we heard about the HOME Initiative and residential zoning reform]

Anchorage’s very first community planner was Vic Fischer, who accepted the job in 1951. At night, he could look south from 15th Avenue without seeing a light.

Fischer, who died last year at 99, spent his century on the planet fighting for equality and human rights. During the 1950s and 1960s, he helped write equality into the Alaska Constitution, worked at the local and federal level for housing opportunities for minorities, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech on the National Mall after marching through the streets of Washington with the protestors.

The late Jack Roderick had an even greater hand in creating our land use zoning system, along with his planner, Jane Angvik. As mayor of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough in the early 1970s, Roderick founded the People Mover bus system, created the Community Councils and led the first comprehensive plan, which determined the city’s major patterns of development.

That comprehensive planning process involved everyone. Every community had meetings and got a say in its future. Special newspaper sections covered all the details. Progressive ideas led the discussion, including debating how to slow growth and limit the population of the city to preserve its quality of life.

These leaders wanted racial equity and grassroots democracy. Their adversaries, conservatives of the day, favored unplanned development to allow land owners and builders to make money as quickly as possible without having to follow any rules.

The planners made mistakes, too. During the population explosion of the pipeline construction years, 1973 to 1977, Anchorage faced an extreme housing shortage. The Assembly chose the solution of a blanket rezone, allowing more dwelling units on each lot.

Mountain View had been a proud little working-class neighborhood of cottages on small lots. It became the city’s roughest, most transient area with apartment buildings on those tiny parcels, without room for kids to play or space to park cars.

But the city as a whole grew into something rare in America: an integrated community. Many other cities are more diverse, but Anchorage is uniquely integrated, with people of different races living and going to school in roughly equal proportions in many neighborhoods, side by side.

Cities in the Lower 48 are rightly addressing their zoning to provide more housing and better integration. Minneapolis was a leader when it changed zoning city-wide, getting rid of all single-family zoning districts, as is now proposed here.

But to reach that conclusion, Minneapolis used a multi-year comprehensive planning process with total community involvement. Not everyone agreed with the outcome, but the public knew what was happening and the final product had majority support. The Minneapolis 2040 plan was the result.

Anchorage went through a similar process beginning in the 1990s, with a broad community discussion to create the Anchorage 2020 plan. It envisioned higher density housing in town centers and along transit corridors, where that infrastructure would maintain quality of life for the people living there, and protection as well for lower density areas with less transportation access and a different housing mix. Many neighborhoods wrote community plans beginning in those years, too.

The problem in Anchorage wasn’t planning, it was implementation. And the stagnation of a long economic recession and out-migration now lasting a decade.

I’m skeptical Anchorage’s housing problem has much to do with zoning. Developers would be building housing if they thought they could make money with some confidence in future economic stability.


But even if relaxing the rules is the answer, a decision as fundamental as doing away with single-family zoning should be part of a plan that involves everyone. Honor the public process, which is the legacy of long, hard fights by the progressives of the past.

In our polarized country, the left and the right both are too sure of themselves. They’re both too quick to grasp ideological solutions based on national rather than local perspectives.

I hope Anchorage’s new mayor can unite the city and get it moving forward. Major zoning changes might need to be part of that. If so, they should be based on a shared vision of the entire community, and not on the scapegoat of a past that isn’t real.

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.