Article Published in ADN on August 9th, 2023
I applaud assembly members, Kevin Cross and Meg Zaletel, for their out of the box attempt to bring more housing of all types and configurations to the MOA. Without question, Anchorage has a housing crisis created by the failed rewrite of Title 21 which was approved in 2015 by the Anchorage assembly after years of squabbling and conceived in an economic and social climate that is outdated today. The idea of increasing residential density might not please some Anchorage residents but it is a necessity if Anchorage is to become the thriving and dynamic commercial center for all of Alaska that it claims to be. During all the years of squabbling over natural sunlight and landscaping to name just a two of the issues, I was for a time chair of the Planning and Zoning commission. And I regret that I grew tired of the fight and left to start a new business. I didn’t fight hard enough against further segregating our community through zoning and I didn’t object hard enough over restrictive designs, whether it was no side entries, the number of windows facing the street, the excessive and arbitrary enforcement of landscaping requirements, including the caliber of the tree trunk. Zoning is the backbone of economic segregation dating all the way back to the creation of HUD after World War II.
Today’s home buyers have access to all sorts of information not available seventy years ago. Potential home buyers can easily check school enrollment, reading and math test scores and who is Caucasian, Asian or mixed like me. Everyone knows the different demographics between Mt. View and Girdwood. We all know where the poor people live whether on the street or lucky enough to be in subsidized housing and where the wealthy live. We don’t need to be a realtor or developer to understand our community is based on economic segregation. To break down those barriers, is an arduous process to say the least. So, kudos to Assembly members Cross and Zaletel. But like everything else in life, the devil is in the details. If there is an infill lot of any size in a single-family subdivision, should that lot now be allowed a new duplex or even a fourplex? Although as a land developer, I would have preferred to intersperse some townhouse style duplexes in a single-family neighborhood, my belief is that it should not be forced upon an already existing community which has established covenants, codes, and restrictions. It is my understanding that is what the new ordinance would allow. My answer is no. You should not attempt to change what already exists. But we can do better in the future. Lot widths, depths, setbacks, height restrictions, lot coverage ratios, ten percent maximum driveway grades, all play a part of the creation and costs of a home to be built on any lot. So, unless some of those requirement are changed to a more reasonable standard, nothing much else will create more housing.
There are two excellent examples of mixed density developments in Anchorage that were created in the l980’s under an existing master planned development. Those two are South Port and Independence Park. In South Port, within walking distance of one another are luxury single family homes on the bluff that have values in today’s market over $2M and across the street are duplex townhouses, and a block away are condo flats in three story buildings. They are integrated by extensive landscaping and married together by a master association. When residents are out walking their dog, they share a common bond, and you can’t tell if they live in a $300,000 condo or a $2 million dollar home. It’s their dogs who greet one another without any economic prejudice. Unfortunately, today, Anchorage lacks large parcels of land to recreate such an environment. But we can, even on an acre of land, hope to emulate what has proven to be successful without forcing a duplex or fourplex on a vacant lot in a existing single-family subdivision. The unit lot subdivision and the Pilot Cottages off Denali are an excellent example of what can be created with a little ingenuity and patience. It took more than two years for that development to gain approval. Where there is a will there is a way or so the saying goes. Lets hope those that have a say will do it better this time. Meanwhile, the search for a $500,000 home continues to be frustrating for middle class buyers whose only option is a 42 year old home. The best buy, today, remains the entry level condo or the 50 minute drive to the Valley where you can still buy an acre of land for less than the price of a new F-150 pick-up truck.