Monthly Archives: November 2006

cook inlet housing going too far?


CIHA has finished up their fourth season of reinventing Mt View and I think they should stop now. They own at least one tenth of the properties in the neighborhood. They have by their account spent more than 50 million dollars here. Their primary activity thus far has been tearing down houses from the original era of Mt View and erecting new larger houses. Mostly they have levelled the building sites, scraping off all of the existing vegetation at the same time. They have renovated a few existing small apartment buildings. And they’re working on a mixed use building on Mt View Dr [described in another thread below].
In some ways they’re doing nice work. They are providing an opportunity to live in and partially own a new house for a portion of what it would normally cost. They are preventing four-plexes from being constructed on the same properties [that would be permissible under current municipal zoning code]. They are playing a leading role in helping to improve the neighborhood and present it to the rest of Anchorage as a desirable place to live and work.
For many of my neighbors that list of accomplishments is more than enough. But I have a number of reservations about it and will elaborate.
The new houses have appeared at the expense of the loss of a great deal of the old ones from the 1940-60 era. CIHA’s defense of that tactic is that the old buildings were at the end of their useful life and were so seriously dilapidated as to be impossible to renovate. Related to that, sometimes the source of their funding placed limitations on renovation projects.
More than any of that, though, it became clear to me from emails exchanged with them during the first two years of their program that they just didn’t want to renovate the old houses. Their strategy has been very consistent and depends on the availability of small, old, typically foundation-less cottages that are easy to take down. They’ve been able to acquire these for 125,000 or less. Since all of the lots in the neighborhood are the same size, the ones with little houses on them have been a lot more vulnerable than the ones with four- and six-plexes.
CIHA said something in a newspaper article a while back that they left the older homes alone that seemed to have some life left in them, or something to that effect. But I don’t really trust their assessment much. The destruction of the Topolski house [see other thread] was particularly troubling, but they took down at least four others with similar historic value. There used to be two small log houses at the NW corner of No. Bragaw St. and Thompson Ave. Constructed around 1940, they had minimal if any foundation, probably some issues with rot at the base of the buildings, but they were generally presentable and they had all of their original features — windows, doors, trim, light fixtures and the like. It’s impossible for me to believe that someone couldn’t have successfully rehabilitated many of the houses they tore down. I have personally been invovled in renovations of houses in worse condition.

I’ve made time since 1999 to tour the neighborhood [sometimes taking others with me] and observing old houses and their settings. It is sad, how much less of it there is now. It is distressing to think that it’s even more threatened, as the pace of redevelopment accelerates. I may later regret not documenting the changes more, by getting permission to completely photograph each one including the interiors.
Most who disagree with me would say that the houses here don’t have distinctive historic features or associations that would make them worth preserving. That may or may not be true but they do give one a direct glimpse into the past. I don’t overromanticize the 1940s and 50s — to an extent the people that used to live here were probably dyed in the wool racists who dumped their trash and waste oil in the back yard — but their houses display a certain self-reliance and assuredness that is admirable. Many of the yards also have mature native trees, outbuildings, native vegetation like wild roses and fireweed, old picket fences, unpaved driveways, rock gardens and other individual touches.
If the new CIHA houses were more tuned into this setting, the trade-off might be more worth it. I guess it bothers me that the parent organization gets tax breaks and all of the consultants and contractors profit from the projects, and the neighborhood gets shorted by having to accept cookie-cuttered designs. Designs that don’t take advantage of their sites and instead create a ubiquitous, ambivalent Anytown scene along every street of what had always been one of Anchorage’s most unique and individualistic, even strange places. It’s not working for me. It would be fine for a new subdivision in the Mat-Su Valley, South Anchorage or someplace where a monocultural new development wasn’t right next to an established mish-mash and trying to shout it down.
On No. Park St. between Thompson and Parsons Avenues there are a number of old homes. A couple of impossibly small shotgun houses from the late 1940s right next to a new CIHA house. I don’t want to criticize that particular house excessively because it’s the only one of their 10 or 12 variations that I like. It seems different than the others. It’s really not much better functionally but its story and a half bungalow style with dormers seem to agree with the older houses a little more. But the comparison is comic — from the porch of the new house you can look over the rooftops of the little shotguns next door.
I would like to see a moratorium on further desctruction of houses from 1940-60 by Cook Inlet, until a plan for saving a few of them can be put in place. It’s been suggested that a demonstration project to renovate one of them could be useful and inspirational to others. Why don’t we try to get that going?
I hope they can continue to improve Mt View without killing what is good about it. If that was important before, now it is crucial.
I think CIHA is sometimes a good listener. I suggested in 2002 they should have a design competition and in 2005 they did so. [I will describe the house that resulted soon.] They have lately begun constructing a high-quality multifamily building here.