When Smart Growth America Comes to Town

Smart Growth America workshop. Photo by Kristine Bunnell. 

Smart Growth America workshop. Photo by Kristine Bunnell. 

by Kristine Bunnell, Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska is experiencing an extreme economic downturn, unprecedented since the 1980s recession. The impact to the Alaska economy is precipitated by the drastic reduction in oil production and oil prices. In response to this grim economic picture, coupled with languishing development in downtown Anchorage, the Long Range Planning team of Anchorage’s Planning Department applied for technical planning assistance from Smart Growth America (SGA) to identify and develop economic and fiscal health tools through an SGA-led community discussion.

The following is a “boots on the ground” narrative of the SGA visit, including a short discussion on the many elements necessary to accomplish a successful three-day whirlwind visit. Not only was Anchorage required to engage the community in a public discussion, SGA also wanted to meet with the Mayor and prominent community partners.

SGA Technical Assistance Award

Community efforts to make its downtown a more walkable, attractive destination helped Anchorage win this national competitive award for SGA technical assistance in early 2016. SGA received over 68 applications from 34 states for its 2016 workshops. The full list of winning communities includes: the Municipality of Anchorage, AK; City of Seattle, WA; City of Huntsville, AL; City of Kansas City, MO; City of Longwood, FL; City of Royal Oak, MI; and the City of North Little Rock, AR.

As part of the technical assistance, two SGA experts visited Anchorage for three days in May 2016 to learn about Anchorage and to facilitate a targeted workshop. Smart Growth paid for the travel of their team, but all costs of the workshop are born by the community.

Smart Growth is defined as: “…..a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.

http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/what-is-smart-growth/ 

TIPS: Start fund raising and other workshop support early! Provide a great room with audio-visual, windows, and access. Give them great local food. We served smoked salmon, eggs, fry bread, and berries at breakfast, soup and sandwiches for lunch, and a root beer float bar at the afternoon break. Attendees work better with good food and a sunny, happy room. Photo by Kristine Bunnell. 

DAY ONE - SGA Team Arrives

Chris Zimmerman is SGA’s Vice President for Economic Development, Director of the Governor’s Institute of Community Design, and a former Arlington, VA elected official. His colleague, Alex Hutchinson is an Economic Development Specialist for SGA, with leadership experience as an Economic Development Officer for the Baltimore Development Corporation. These two economic development heavy hitters arrived early to tour Anchorage on their own.

DAY TWO - Economy Overview and Downtown Tour

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz scheduled breakfast with the SGA team at a local’s breakfast spot. The invited welcoming committee included Chris Schutte, Executive Director of the Office of Economic & Community Development, Planning Director Hal H. Hart AICP, Current Planning Manager Terry Schoenthal, Long-Range Planning Manager Carol Wong, and Kristine Bunnell, the Project Manager. The informal breakfast meeting gave some focused time to delve deep into concerns that the Mayor wished to see addressed at the workshop.

Following breakfast, the SGA Team was treated to a four-hour intensive primer on state and local development, politics, funding, Alaska Native culture, and the foundational economy of our great state given by Bill Popp, President and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC). This important overview of Alaska and Anchorage allowed the SGA team to understand the issues that Alaskans are facing with the drop in oil prices.

While losing jobs and some businesses mostly connected to the oil industry, the Anchorage area enjoys several positive economic contributors, serving to keep the Anchorage economy afloat. Resiliency factors include financially-successful Alaska Native Corporations headquartered in Anchorage, a growing tourism market (2+ million visitors expected in 2016), large federal government presence at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the fourth largest and growing cargo airport in the world (Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport), and the steady housing and commercial real estate market in Anchorage.

Downtown Tour and Existing Development

Downtown Anchorage retains an eclectic mix of early 1900s historic properties, mostly repurposed from single-family housing to small business enterprises. These are interspersed between 1940s World War II, and 1980s oil and gas boom construction as low, mid, and high-rise glass-enclosed structures. An entire block of federal buildings, the Anchorage Museum, and the 5th Avenue Mall are also found downtown.

The SGA team received an up-close and personal tour of the downtown to gain a better understanding of its development issues. What was most telling during the tour were the many open-area parking lots - all possible contributors and “prime areas for redevelopment,” Zimmerman declared during the tour. Zimmerman, quite enthusiastic, was quick to point out the potential for Smart Growth revitalization including walkable infrastructure, façade improvements, high-density housing opportunities, and increased transit.

TIP: Take the time to tour your area of focus for the SGA Workshop. The downtown tour gave the SGA team a better understanding of the issues impacting redevelopment, and it was a highlight of their visit. The tour, coupled with the narrative provided by Popp brought the story home.

Day Three – Community Workshop

A specific group of community leaders, developers, social service providers, and planners were invited to the May 10 workshop. They represented Native corporations, a range of businesses and groups, along with federal, state, and local agencies. Before the workshop, the invitees received a workshop agenda and a list of eight questions.

TIP: You will have to press some people to attend through emails and personal phone calls. Reserve time to send those emails and make those personal calls early on, and then follow-up a month, and two weeks out. Start your list of attendees early and send them a “Save the Date.” Then send out monthly “Save the Date” follow-up reminders. Get on your mayor and other electeds’ calendars early and confirm, confirm, confirm!

Morning Session Presentations

The morning session of the May 10 workshop started with downtown Anchorage success stories and an economic outlook, followed by an in-depth overview of national demographics, housing, and job market demands by Zimmerman. The Smart Growth presentation also included some of the best “Smart Growth” practices in use in the nation. Providing affordable housing, relevant jobs, and services to millennials and seniors seemed to be the most prominent themes attendees heard. Essentially these two large demographic groups seek a great quality of life.

TIP: Allow invested community leaders to present during the morning session. Workshop attendees were given a volume of relevant demographic and economic information about Anchorage. This information helped focus the afternoon table discussions.

Afternoon Facilitated Discussion

Seven round tables seated the 53 attendees. One municipal planner was stationed at each table to facilitate the discussion. Of the 98 people on the invite list, 47 attended, along with six walk-ins who had heard about the workshop through the press or at other public meetings. Overall, this number represented a fair cross-section of the downtown community. The discussion was serious at times when attendees mulled over how to care for and house the homeless population, which is growing and consists of three distinct groups: Alaska Natives, U.S. veterans, and teens.

The following eight questions helped the attendees with context, and were for the most part answered with enough detail to allow the formulation of the final recommendations. 

  1. Why aren’t developers coming to us with projects that the community would like to see, both in terms of project location and the character of the development?  Example:  Mixed-use with housing, commercial, retail, restaurants, Work/Live Spaces, Maker Spaces, Lofts for housing, etc.
  2. What will it take for you to develop new high density mixed use projects that the MOA, and the community want to see in the Downtown area?  Let’s not leave this workshop without some concrete understanding of this question, and some real answers that MOA staff can start working on.
  3. Please help us identify and then codify those incentive tools, that the community can be willing to support, that will bring new growth and development in Downtown.  These tools could then be used throughout Anchorage to spur identified growth and development.
  4. Many Social Service providers are in the Downtown area.  Do the services that they provide need to be disbursed around the Anchorage Bowl to provide better coverage and relieve the concentration that is here?  Has this helped or hindered Downtown?
  5. What other codes or regulations are needed to make Downtown better?  Example:  We do not have a loitering regulation in place to limit loitering on public property.  Does that need to be addressed?
  6. Are there current business practices, ordinances or lack of, that are impacting Downtown?  Example: Closure of all Downtown bars at 3:00 am.
  7. How should infrastructure improvements support new Downtown development?Example:  Would this be through a better understanding by the community of how sewer, water, electric, roadway, and sidewalks, etc. are planned, funded, and developed?
  8. Will the things that we have talked about in previous questions support small businesses in Downtown?  If not, what can we do to support small businesses in the Downtown area?  Example:  Streamlined permitting, increased communication on projects and programs in Downtown?
Smart Growth America workshop. Photo by Kristine Bunnell. 

Smart Growth America workshop. Photo by Kristine Bunnell. 

Highlights of Recommendations and Comments from the Workshop

  • Have better communication between staff and the development community. Please provide one municipal point person when developers bring in projects.
  • Pursue any and all development incentive tools. Municipality of Anchorage needs to contribute financially to projects to have “skin in the game!”
  • Determine where parking needs to go to support new development; contemplate parking sheds.
  • Need a smart grid with more/better connectivity including Wi-Fi. Underground electric, Wi-Fi, telephone creating utility corridors where possible.
  • Have an infrastructure APP, so people know where roadway construction is occurring.
  • Have self-cleaning public restrooms.
  • Fix the downtown park.
  • Consider closing 4th Avenue for outdoor space.
  • Take back 5th and 6th Avenues from the Alaska Department of Transportation to slow traffic down, and make these two main streets more walkable.
  • Get those parking lots into redevelopment! (The Big Idea from the SGA team.)

Lessons Learned

Smart Growth America helped the community refocus, reimagine, and re-energize a commitment to downtown in one short day. The momentum gained when the Anchorage Downtown Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2007 is back in focus. By sharing success stories from across the country, the SGA team reinforced the benefits of downtown redevelopment. The participants then affirmed the current issues and needs articulated in the eight questions. SGA fostered a cross-cultural community discussion incorporating valuable economic and demographic information. Most of all, the SGA team saw the positives of Anchorage and pointed them out to workshop attendees in a striking and thought-provoking manner. This positive narrative generated enthusiasm and great comments from around the room.

Follow-up

Anchorage is required to provide three progress reports over the course of the 12 months to SGA. SGA is required to provide a report with recommendations within a month of the May 2016 workshop. Municipal staff will also follow-up with workshop attendees by providing the progress reports, check-ins on potential projects, and ultimately to thank everyone who attended. This is important for the big and small projects that will come forward as a result of this workshop. In the long run, municipal staff members need to ensure that there is a team of advocates walking alongside downtown developers.

Conclusion

This was a win-win for Anchorage. Great things are going to happen in Anchorage as a result of the Smart Growth America workshop. We will also have the SGA team to lean on in the future. They loved Alaska and want to come back. Smart Growth has many tools and grant programs! It took a great application and a sincere letter to bring Smart Growth America to our town!


Kristine Bunnell is the Senior Planner/Project Manager in the Long-Range Planning Division with the Municipality of Anchorage. She manages the Anchorage Historic Preservation Program, and is responsible for several planning and outreach efforts conducted by the division. She also serves on the Editorial Board for The Western Planner.


Published in the December 2016/ January 2017 Issue