Monthly Archives: July 2008

freeway is not free

I dropped by a presentation for the impending Highway to Highway project tonight. Of all the projects of the last five years [all $200 million worth in Mt View alone, or whatever number is being mentioned these days] this one is the most difficult to love. I thought the Glenn-Bragaw intersection project would be an affront to the senses, a deep compromise in the end — but the State Dept of Transportation and Public Facilities did something uncharacteristic and started listening to people in the adjoining neighborhoods. And what’s being built now will reflect our input and suggestions to a great degree.
I don’t have any illusions about H2H. The engineers and public liasions at DOT are making every effort to allow input at every turn, and to break it to us slowly and gently. We’re at least two years away from seeing drawings of anything specific about the proposed route and details of effects on existing neighborhoods and the land. But I know this project has the potential to ruin my life.
A little background…
Is it possible to explain Anchorage to someone not from here? It is a city of nearly 300,000 built on a land form called a bowl, but it’s flat rather than concave — more of a peninsula, perhaps? With a body of water, an inlet with two arms on the west side and a series of 20 or 30 rugged 4,000 to 10,000 ft tall peaks on its east border. All of the part in between is rapidly descending into kind of a free for all, a chaotic criss-crossing functions and a hapless smear of mini-mega malls, big boxes, car dealers, office towers and cookie cuttered ticky-tacky. That’s the bad part. The good part is there’s still a lot of scenery and wilderness and wildlife and wild life and everything else that anyone ever thought was good about the place — right inside the city. There are still only two ways out of town. The Seward Highway to the south is a two-lane series of dangerous curves running along the shore of Turnagain Arm at the base of the Chugach Mountains, passing a few very small towns including Girdwood [3,000 or so], the home of world class downhill skiing and dirty hippies [my kind of place except it’s sort of monocultural, while trying not to be]. About 80 miles out of town the road splits and one fork takes you a bit further into the seaside town of Seward, the other leading another 150 miles down the Kenai Peninsula past Kenai-Soldotna and on into Homer [“a quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem”]. With some of the best recreational opportunities you can imagine, all along the way. The other route out takes you to points north, via the Glenn Highway. Starts out with eight lanes, down to six pretty quickly, then four, right past the bedroom community of Eagle River, then past the suburbs of the suburb and rocketing into the Mat-Su Valley and the upstart towns of Wasilla and Palmer. From there you can take a two-lane of a continuation of the Glenn to points further north and eventually drive into the Yukon Territory or down to Valdez, or stick with the arterial [also a two lane once clear of Wasilla] and trek the Parks Highway past Talkeetna, Willow, Denali and on up by Nenana and over the Ester Dome into Fairbanks. By then you’re 400 miles from the big town [did I mention that two thirds of the state lives in Anchorage?]. Either trip is incredible, and traffic congestion really isn’t an issue anywhere along the way, outside of Anchorage. In 37 years in Anchorage I’ve driven to Fairbanks maybe half a dozen times, and to Homer countless times. In fact, in some ways I wish I was sailing along the coast somewhere south of Ninilchik right now [except ten years ago it cost maybe $25 for gas for the trip and it would be closer to $100 today].
Eagle River and Girdwood are only 26 miles apart [as the raven flies, over the mountains] but are almost 60 apart by road, but H2H wouldn’t cut the mileage, just the driving time — slightly.
The Anchorage ends of the Seward and Glenn Highways dissipate onto urban arterials. This project would join the ends together into more limited access freeways. Mostly for the benefit of people commuting to work and back from Eagle River and Mat-Su, 98% or so of them in single occupant vehicles. Any way this is done will be devastating for some part of Anchorage [yet to be determined]. Fairview and Government Hill and possibly Mt View take the worst of it, in increased noise and intrusion of unsightly ramps, if the simplest route is selected. There’s less assurance this is the preferred route anymore, now that the Knik Arm Crossing seems DOA [this would have been a third way out of town, but was proposed to land in an unihabited area a ways south of Wasilla]. But any other route would rudely puncture the sanctity of the Chester Creek greenbelt, a rather wonderful stream basin running all the way down from the mountains and through town, and connected by narrow trails running its length and branching out to a nonmotorized trail network that’s without peer in any city of any size i’ve seen. Moose and bears and everything else roam its full length.
Overall, I think we should just chill out for a couple decades. Let people try to continue driving as traffic piles up and gas heads from four to ten bucks. Let’s figure out how to get around better on buses, bikes and trains. One of the H2H flyers I picked up tonight says that $518 million in 2005 dollars is budgeted for this project. And in 50 years, if there’s still cars on the road they will be going 10 mph during rush hour, whether or not we build this “essential” freeway connection.
images: my photos of the bowl of anchorage from Mt. Magnificent in Eagle Rver, July ’06 and from the air, May ’06.

neighborhood plan work resumes

The Anchorage Community Land Trust has hired local planning firm Agnew::Beck to create a process to push the Mt View Neighborhood Plan to completion and implementation. At a brief meeting today, Chris Beck and Thea Agnew-Bemben talked to representatives of the Mt View Community Council and ACLT and Bruce Farnsworth about what’s been accomplished thus far and what the next steps should be. The Fairview neighborhood has completed their NP already, and A::B is also involved in the creation of plans for the Anchorage Hillside and one section of Midtown Anchorage. The NP will represent the neighborhood’s own vision of its future and will hopefully be a useful tool to guide redevelopment. Thea was careful to point out repeatedly that it will be self-empowering. A lot of today’s discussion involved how to download information previously assembled during several stop and start processes that have taken place since 1998. It’s good to have this underway. Props to Jewel Jones of ACLT for helping get us going again.

blacklisted again!

I caught a cab home from the airport yesterday morning. Interesting conversation with the driver. When she found out we were going to Mt View, she told me a long story about her boss laying out the ground rules, a few years back at the beginning of her employment. He said, as a female she was allowed to drop people off in Mt View but not pick up; and that she was not to go there after dark under any circumstances. This was because, sometime back in the ’70s or ’80s a couple teenagers robbed and killed a cab driver. [I vaguely remember the news of the murder but can’t recall if it had anything to do with Mt View.]
As we crossed midtown I gave her my stump speech about Mt View and a summary of all my experiences getting to know other residents and activists over the last nine years. “It’s too bad,” I said. “I know your boss had nothing but good intentions, to keep you out of harm’s way and all. But why should a reputation of a place have to suffer? Why not blame the criminals and not the neighborhood?”
It’s a continual problem for us, and we have talked about it at length, until we burned out and became more ambivalent. A lot of people, particularly conservaties believe that a culture exists in Mt View that has a high tolerance for crime; and that any investment or attempts to forge improvements are folly at best. I guess I don’t see that. As a city, Anchorage would be a lot better off to take the position that all of its neighborhoods have intrinsic value and are worth all the effort we can muster to ensure peace and tranquility. We know what needs to be done. We just have to generate the interest and willingness to try. A big part of this is convincing the cab driver’s boss and other well-meaning people.
The cabbie was bringing me home from 10 days in Seattle. I spent a fair amount of time in the Rainier Valley district. In the 1980s a drive up the length of Rainier Ave. was somewhat fearful, as if you didn’t want to linger. It’s a lot different today. I saw dozens of 100 year old houses under renovation, a lot of new investment on the commercial strip and a lot less obvious intractable poverty. Also saw former retail and warehouse buildings adapted to new uses. This and other parts of Seattle are in much better shape than they used to be, and are offering a chance for first time home buyers to get a stake in the area, even as they are priced out of other parts of the city. As in Mt View, houses in the Rainier Valley, and Delridge, White Center and other places in South Seattle sell for a fraction of other neighborhoods within the city limits.
Seattle decided these places matter, when there was a danger of them becoming real ghettos, as exist in the rust belt of the midwest — places such as East St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago.