Category Archives: anchorage parks

title 21 rewrite dumbing down continues

The Anchorage Citizens Coalition continues to give a full court press to informing the public of the theft underway, vis. the future appearance of the community and the hollowing out of its core values.  [Show ACC some love for their efforts, I did!] 

ACC chart showing how far the rewrite has strayed from the vision, in regards to open space.  [Click on the image for a larger version.]

ACC chart showing how far the rewrite has strayed from the vision, in regards to open space. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

The latest two communiques from ACC about discussion and changes to the Title 21 Land Use Code rewrite‘s provisions for open space were jarring!  This is the first time I felt like the revised Title 21 could actually turn out worse than the current one.  Feb. 25th:

This draft requires no PUBLIC open space, leaving all of us responsible for paying for additional park space as Anchorage becomes more dense..

Clarion Assoc (that wrote the first drafts of the proposed code in direct response to Anchorage 2020 goals) recommended 100 feet of PUBLIC OPEN SPACE per 1000 sq ft of developed lot.  A developer would provide land or a “fee in lieu” to a municipal parks account.  That provision has been dropped altogether.

 The Anchorage 2020 comprehensive plan clearly identifies preservation of open space as a key community value.  Think of what Anchorage will look like, without the wooded buffer zones that exist now.  We can continue to take these for granted, up until every last one is defoliated.  When that happens, we will be a lot more likely to be breathing bad air a lot of the time, due to a lack of windbreaks.  Habitat destruction for moose and other wildlife will be complete.  And protection of creeks and aquifers will be at an all-time low.

ACC representative Cheryl Richardson was the only Anchorage citizen to attend a Feb. 19th meeting about the open space provisions.  Besides Municipal Planning Dept. staff and members of the Anchorage Assembly, there were four homebuilder developers in attendance.  Some of the developers’ comments on private open space provisions [followed by Cheryl’s comments in parentheses]:

  • If we make housing here too expensive, it will drive more people to live in the Valley.  (Multifamily development costs are less under proposed code than current code.)
  • Not everyone needs a flat yard. (Staff wanted the private space to be usable by young children and folks in wheelchairs.)
  • Why provide open space outdoors when our winters are so long.  (Because it’s our summers that bring most people out of doors.)
  • If you have a child, then don’t rent an apartment that doesn’t have play space.
  • Is there a requirement for the open space to have direct sunlight? (Answer:  No.)

The developers appear to be using the perceived lack of public interest to take over the debate, and they appear to be getting away with it.  If people knew what was at stake, there would be an organized opposition movement against these rewrite revisions.  We have heard the argument — we cannot afford to provide the amenities you want, and if you make us do it we will ‘take our ball and go home’, i.e. move to Mat-Su and stop building in Anchorage — before.  It’s a scare tactic and it rings hollow.  Developers always grandstand like this, and will say the sky is falling right up until when the new regulations become inevitable.  Then they will instantly adapt.

Maybe I can frame this without seeming to engage in class warfare?  Effectively we are ceding control of parameters that can make our lives much better, to people who have already acquired enough wealth that none of it will affect them.  Why don’t these homebuilders want the tenants of the units they build to have nice yards and enjoyable surroundings? 

Typical Anchorage infill housing development, this example from east Anch.  Street dominated by cars and garages, yards are small and narrow, no alleys, little concern for building orientation to natural features.

Typical Anchorage infill housing development, this example from east Anch. Street dominated by cars and garages, yards are small and narrow, no alleys, little concern for building orientation to natural features.

 

Does it get any worse?  Yes!  Four-plex apartments, street sides windowless, entire area between buildings and street 100% paved, no landscaping.

Does it get any worse? Yes! Four-plex apartments, street sides windowless, entire area between buildings and street 100% paved, no landscaping.

I’m not saying the homebuyer doesn’t have a legitimate concern [why should they be forced to pay for amenities and features they don’t think they need?].  But it also makes financial sense to stick to a vision — and those homes that do have useable yards, a woodsy setting,  and are well oriented to prevailing sunlight and viewsheds will hold onto their value a lot better than those built without a thought to their sites. 

Anchorage is full of examples of subdivisions where the facade of the house is dominated by the garage doors, where there are no sidewalks and little street parking availability; a lack of dedicated pedestrian ways; no alleys; where the natural landscape was completely obliterated in order to build the new streets and houses. 

Further discussion of the history of public open space provisions during the rewrite, from ACC, Mar. 4th:

But, in 2004, staff gave up on having developers either provide public open space with construction or paying a fee in lieu to a fund that would provide open space.  This left the burden on the rest of us to approve park bonds to pay for adding public open space as Anchorage becomes more dense. 

The decision feels like a “plot” because it was not publicly discussed beyond that 2004 workshop to which the public was not invited.
  Even Planning and Zoning Commission members were surprised to learn in 2008 that public open space had been proposed in earlier Title 21 drafts and then dropped.  Having three minutes in a public hearing to explain the open space problem to P&Z along with several other issues does not constitute meaningful public discussion.

Of all the issues summarized in Chris Duerksen’s 2004 report, I found dropping public open space the most disturbing.  What do you think?  Here’s the link: http://www.muni.org/iceimages/planning/Duerksen_wkshp_report.pdf

I find it disturbing as well.  Too much of what happens in Anchorage seems like an inside job, intentionally flying under the radar.  If you aren’t concerned about any of this, just sit back and relax.  If you are concerned, suggest to your favorite mayoral candidate they should start talking about it.  And think about getting involved in another way, and talking to friends and neighbors.  Or else you won’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

This Eagle River subdivision is the poster child for bad development.  Soils from the denuded hillside began washing down onto property below.  Before 2007 there was nothing in local codes to make erosion control mandatory.

This Eagle River subdivision is the poster child for bad development. Soils from the denuded hillside began washing down onto property below. Before 2007 there was nothing in local codes to make erosion control mandatory.

The street side width of each building is asphalt paved all the way across.  There are small yards between the buildings but theyre sloped.

The street side width of each building is asphalt paved all the way across. There are small yards between the buildings but they're sloped.

10 feet from the back of the buildings to the undeveloped property next door.  This strip counts as part of the required yard, even though its continuously sloped, in the dark on the north side and theres no door opening onto it from the house.

10 feet from the back of the buildings to the undeveloped property next door. This strip counts as part of the required yard, even though it's continuously sloped, in the dark on the north side and there's no door opening onto it from the house.

These are 4-BR, 2-BA, 1,340 sq. ft. attached units, offered in the low 200s, by the way.  Apparently marketed to families who dont need a yard.

These are 4-BR, 2-BA, 1,340 sq. ft. attached units, offered in the low 200s, by the way. Apparently marketed to families who don't need a yard.

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muni delays decision on russian jack park until early ’09

There was a public session on Dec. 1st where there was an opportunity to comment on four new options for park improvements.  Commendably, the first option was to do nothing at all.  Each person was given three little round stickers, to place on the scheme/s they liked the best.  When I left the gathering there were about 50 people there and there were at least 25 dots on Option #1.  Options #2 and #3 leave a smaller footprint but are still noticeable changes, and Option #4, though scaled down still has most of the features of the controversial original plan, including a driving range.

I am advocating for no changes.  I think the public is starting to agree!  The Anchorage Daily News came out in favor of improvements for safety only, in a Nov. 28th editorial.  At least one recent letter to the ADN editor again raises serious questions about the efficacy of golf as a conduit for rehab and recreation of troubled kids. 

Local cross-country advocate and activist Dirk Sisson gives more details in a Nov. 30th ADN guest editorial.  [Do yourself a favor and stay out of the comments section following Dirk’s piece, or if you must go there please take solace in the idea that these goons are too busy killing more brain cells in the evening to go to any meetings.]

I’d like to know a little more about First Tee, the operator/conecssionaire partnering with MOA to run the golf course.  I’d like to know more about chemicals to be used to fertilize fairways and greens.  Someone told me that mercury is used in some parts of the country to keep mildew out of the fine grass used on greens!

Further public testimony will occur on Dec. 11th, Jan. 8th and Feb. 12th.  Everyone who cares about this park, a treasure and a relic of this city’s wilderness legacy should study up on this project proposal and provide feedback.

Update 12/15/08.  In a letter to the editor in today’s Anchorage Daily News, a local resident lays out the ground rules:

Mayor can’t unilaterally alter park
The Compass piece by Mick Brogan supporting First Tee’s golfing development plans for Russian Jack Springs Park (ADN, Dec. 10) completely misses the mark. First, the folks who don’t want to see any of the remaining natural environment of Russian Jack sacrificed to First Tee’s proposed golf course development and related “improvements” are not trying to protect this small patch of natural land as a critical contribution to combating global warming. Instead, they are trying to preserve what remains of the original, natural scene in this relatively small public park, for the sake of the park itself, and for its many and varied users. So his suggestion that trees can simply be planted elsewhere as mitigation and “biomass offset” is pure nonsense.
Second, Mr. Begich is mayor, not king. He may have shaken hands and told First Tee that they could do what they proposed in Russian Jack. But Mr. Begich has no legal authority to override or ignore the existing, adopted park plans and related management plans that govern this park. If First Tee believed the mayor could just do that, they are either naive or gullible — and in any case, they are wrong.
— T. E. Meacham
Anchorage

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russian jack springs park

An article in today’s Anchorage Daily News unveiled some details of a planned public-private partnership to drastically modify Russian Jack. Voters in ’06 approved a ballot initiative to OK a lease of an existing 9-hole golf course at the park by a private non-profit, ostensibly to involve youth with a goal of providing an outlet for at-risk youth in the community. Sounds great thus far, eh? Hard to imagine golf in that kind of role, maybe, but let’s give it a chance. I remember when a representative of the non-profit, First Tee appeared at the Mt View Community Council meeting. They represented their project as merely an adaptive re-use of the existing course. They hinted there might be some improvements to occur commensurate with the lease, but that it would be a clubhouse building that would integrate into the existing park without any impact on the character of the place and its other uses. This is the basis on which the project was ‘sold’ to the Community Councils and the voters.
The details released today counter that assertion and are as scary as hell. The plans include the clearing of 25 acres of fully wooded land, primarily for enlargement of the golf course. There is a new parking lot for 100 cars, two new park entrances and significant regrading. Even the natural spring that exists in the middle of the park will be piped and channeled for irrigation of the greens.
The park is a treasure, created from one of the few remaining intact homesteads of the 1920-40 era. And it is one of the few with interesting terrain, the aforementioned spring, and a network of narrow trails through the trees you can ski in the winter and hike in the summer. There’s also a chalet there that functions as a warmup shelter for a sledding and downhill ski hill. I think it’s mostly sledding these days, as the rope tow that used to be there for the skiers hasn’t been in operation for a few years.
I went there as a kid in the early ’70s and it felt like a practice facility for all of the sports — when you got better at cross-country skiing you moved out to the more challenging trails at Kincaid and Hillside Parks; when you mastered the ski hill it was off to Arctic Valley and then Alyeska. The ADN article mentions that Kikkan Randall, the Anchorage cross-country skier who just became the first American to win a world championship is among many others who learned to ski at Russian Jack.
Even the golf course had always been clearly for amateurs, its narrow fairways and turfed greens obviously not the stuff of serious golfers. But the golf course and all of the other existing amenities fit into the park without taking away from its essential goodness and status as a piece of untamed alaska in the middle of the city. Goodbye to all of that, if this plan is pursued.
I am so hacked off about this plan I don’t even know where to start. It is just so bad on so many different levels. One of the deep-seated, inexcusable and serial behaviors of people in city government [none of whom should ever be in an advocacy position for a private developer, I think it could be easily argued] is a compulsion to either misrepresent essential characteristics and scope of a proposed development; or be intentionally and deceptively vague concerning details; or else flat out lie about it. According to ADN again, at a recent public hearing at the Russian Jack Chalet, a neighbor said she never would have voted for the lease had she known the details. And the people pushing this project knew that, and that’s why those details were not revealed prior to the election!
A couple of years ago the Municipality created something called the Anchorage Parks Foundation. The idea behind the foundation, as it was presented was to strengthen parks and recreational facilities with private donations, allow some degree of public-private partnership in order to enliven what we have and protect it for the long haul, through pendulum swings in the political climate. Now, I might donate to something like that if it really worked that way. But if I felt like I was contributing even a miniscule push to something like the MOA/First Tee vision of Russian Jack, I’d want to put my head in the oven!
OK, so we have backers both inside and outside the government who are being fast and loose with the facts, and seem to have a vested interest in not revealing truth about scope and intentions. If a groundswell of protest against this project appears, as seems likely, the people who want it to happen will redouble their efforts. I would expect there to be multiple talking points coming out of City Hall, including:
1. If you’re against this project you’re for gang violence and reduced opportunities for recreation for kids;
2. The vast wooded and unsupervised acreage in the park has provided a place for crimes to be committed; and
3. The proposed partnership is a good deal for the city because the private partner pays for part of infrastructure improvements that become a permanent part of the park.
And my respone to each is:
1. Physical education in schools has constantly been cut. [Music and art have, too.] Organized sports used to exist at the middle school level in Anchorage. There are many other ways to enhance opportunity that don’t involve destruction of a major natural asset. And the participants of other modes of sport and recreation have gotten a cold shoulder from the Muni recently, too. Witness what happened to the skaters and BMX riders. If a lot of kids want to play golf in First Tee’s programs, we can figure out how to share one of the other courses that already are suitable.
2. Other parks in Anchorage have been crime scenes, too. Their remoteness and wild character makes that a risk, but hardly is a justification for eliminating the experience of the place for all. It’s not as if it’s a crime epidemic.
3. The improvements under discussion are neither necessary or desirable.
Because this same sort of struggle continues to play out in Anchorage, time after time, it limits the real progress we could make. We know in our hearts what makes this place great, what development should occur, what assets should be protected and off-limits. But we are constantly putting out fires trying to stop really bad big ideas that slip under the radar. Whether it’s the Knik Arm Bridge; the loss of the 4th Avenue Theater; the mothballing of some neighborhoods and wholesale marginalization and cashing out of others; the hegemony of roads and commerce at the expense of quality of life — we have a real problem with moderating our approach, and expanding public input. We have a demonstrated impatience for nuance and a hatred of doing our homework. Look no further than the level of debate in the current Anchorage Assembly for evidence.
All this has got to change, damn it!