Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ugly Anchorage or a City To Match Our Mountains? The Decision is NOW

OK, I admit, we're not likely to have a city to match our mountains. (Though there are places in the world where the city scape is spectacularly beautiful and in harmony with their environments.) 

Tonight the Anchorage Assembly 'starts' public hearings on changes to Title 21 - the Municipal Code that governs design criteria for developing Anchorage into the future.  I say 'starts' because this has been going on over ten years and was all set to be adopted when Sullivan became mayor and hijacked the process.  (Yes, I'm moving out of my normal even handed perspective into a more editorial one.  Sometimes there aren't two sides.  Sometimes one side is right and the other is not.  While I don't think this is a case of right and wrong, it is a case of much righter and much wronger.)

I see several interest groups here:

1.  Planners - those who recognize that every large successful business makes plans about what they are going to do in the future so that they can stay competitive.  These folks believe that governments, involving and representing the vast majority of citizens, should come up with plans for simple things that make, in this case, our city safer, easier to walk and bike in (this includes kids, the poor, the elderly), and just a lot nicer to look at.

Anchorage has gone through a very comprehensive process over a ten year period to come up with such a plan.

2.  The Builders - those who make their living in various areas of construction - from architects to pavers.  While this group is relatively small in percentage of the Anchorage population, they have, individually, a much bigger interest in this and have wielded a lot of political power to stop the community process from being implemented and with the help of Mayor Sullivan made radical changes to the plan so that they can continue to build with as little oversight by the City planning department.  They can continue to build with just their immediate costs in mind and with little interest to the impacts their buildings have on the availability of decent, durable housing, and the visual impact of their buildings of the neighbors.  Some of these people already do forward thinking projects, but most don't and don't want anyone to restrict them in any way.

3.  The average citizen who doesn't think much about long term impacts, doesn't think she has any power to make a difference, is terribly busy anyway, and/or doesn't even know what Title 21 is.

4.  The "in their own world' delusional types.  These are folks for whom out-of-context facts and half-truths are ammunition to support their own dysfunctional fancies.  In this case they are remnants of the Anchorage Tea Party movement who have declared Anchorage's Title 21 to be a conspiracy to take over the world by the same people who are pushing the UN's Agenda 21.   Glenn Beck is one of those pushing this bogey-man to get these folks to continue to vote against their own self interests.  Sorry, I know it's more subtle than this, but not a lot. Really, there were lots of these people at the Planning and Zoning meetings on Title 21.  Lots. 

While other parts of the US not only recognize same-sex marriage, our friends at the Anchorage Baptist Temple have managed to keep the words gay and lesbian out of our anti-discrimination law.

And we're just as far behind the rest of the US in planning and zoning standards that help prevent the worst of developer practices.  Good developers support planning because then they can do well designed projects that make sense for their immediate client in the short term, and also for their client and the rest of Anchorage in the long term.  Without the guidelines, they get undercut by unscrupulous builders and get forced into shortcuts that ultimately hurt their clients and the rest of us.

The builders argue there is a shortage of land in Anchorage to develop so they shouldn't be restricted.  I'd argue the shortage means that what is left is at a premium and the price of the land will mean their clients can afford to do things that have long term value for their clients and the rest of us.

Is the Title 21 that came out of the community planning process perfect?  Certainly not.  If you want perfection, try soap bubbles.  But it's a lot more reflective of what the greater public that particiapted in its creation wanted, than the developer mangled rewrite that Dan Coffey got two lucrative contracts from Mayor Sullivan to do.  Even Sullivan didn't take all off Coffey's recommendations. 

Here's some background from those who have worked for years to improve the design quality of Anchorage including tips for what you can do: 

Tuesday, January 15, Loussac Library Assembly Chambers, 7pm.
[My sense is that this won't be finished tonight.  But you should be at the Assembly Chambers to let the Assembly members know how the public feels. And to get riled up by the nonsense some people are spewing.  And to fill my space since I'm out of town. In the previous meetings the Tea Party folks were there in number and volume opposed to any government planning because this was all an Agenda 21 conspiracy.  If you absolutely can't go, watch online.  But one of the best ways to influence the Assembly is to be there in person for your interests.  Bring the kids so they can learn how democracy works.  Let them see what happens if their voice is or isn't represented.]

You don't have to understand the newest code.  The Assembly certainly doesn't.  They only received copies of it last weekend, and it's over 700 pages long. 

Just come and talk about what you're an expert on:  Why you choose to live here, and what problems you've lived with that you want fixed before another ten years go by.  

Folks who scorn improving the city's quality of life will be there talking about their property rights and fighting sidewalks and landscaping because it's 'too expensive.'  Your voice is very much needed.

Tell the Assembly you want them to approve the 'Provisionally Adopted Title 21' that went through 8 YEARS of public review and compromises.

Anchorage Citizens Coalition will prepare technical comments after we've gone through the newest Title 21 with the help of our great volunteers.  If you can help on any particular issue, please contact us.

We have two kinds of threats from the Assembly:  
1.  The Assembly hasn't yet learned that if we want small, walkable neighborhood shopping districts they need to help by concentrating commercial/retail development, not scattering it all over town into industrial and residential districts.  We need 'Mixed Use District Zones,' that will produce compact shopping areas next to neighborhoods, and other strategies that they threw out last year.

2.  The Tea Party, the Building Owners and Managers Assoc. and the new Planning & Zoning Commission didn't get all they wanted from the Assembly's Title 21 Committee, and we can expect them to come back for more on issues such as 
  • allowing taller commercial buildings inside neighborhoods (B1A and B2B zones,) 
  • squeezing homes onto lots that are currently considered 'too small,'
  • reducing the open space children need for outdoor play,
  • dumpster screening,
  • sunlight into neighborhoods, and more. 
Here's what we expect to be at stake as the Assembly votes on Title 21:
  • sidewalks on both sides of the street and to connect schools, parks and neighborhoods (keep pedestrian standards.)
  • keeping tall buildings from shadowing our yards and south facing windows, (keep midtown and other B-3 business zoning, business height transition standards for neighborhoods)  (Note: no standards have yet been developed that protect homes from shadowing other homes.)
  • incentives to build small, active, walkable neighborhood shopping districts out on the main streets, (bring back mixed use zoning districts, do not scatter mixed uses into industrial and residential zones.)
  • keeping ticky tacky cookie cutter houses out of our neighborhoods, and making sure new homes have more landscaping and less asphalt. (Strengthen standards for single family and multifamily design, landscaping, garage front domination.)
  • protecting our wildlife corridors and fish habitats (Restore 50 foot stream setbacks, limits on fences & buildings next to streams.)
  • making sure children have decent, attractive play space near their homes.  (Maintain 'useable' open space standards.)
  • making sure it's safer to walk in midtown as it continues to grow.  (Restore height restrictions in midtown that allow for increased height only after building adds landscaping, sunlight protection, public space, plazas, etc.)

Besides going to the meeting you can:

Work with your Community Council to adopt a resolution promoting the Provisionally Adopted Title 21 and supporting Anchorage 2020.  http://www.communitycouncils.org/  Other councils' resolutions are available for your review by contacting AnchorageCitizensCoalition@gmail.com

More info is at accalaska.org and at the Facebook site Free Title 21

The muni has posted all relevant Title 21 documents at: http://www.muni.org/Departments/OCPD/Planning/Projects/t21/Pages/Title21Rewrite.aspx

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