Saturday, January 2, 2016

Anchorage Neighborhoods' Identity Crises

I co-wrote this blog with my friend Eric Van Oss, whose blog, The Arctic Urbanophile, is a great read on urban planning and development in Alaska. 

Q: What is a city?
A: A collection of identifiable, individual neighborhoods that make up pieces of a greater community.
When people talk about cities, they often refer specifically to the neighborhood in which they reside, like Seattle’s Capitol Hill or Washington DC’s Georgetown. These neighborhoods have iconic attractions, well-defined borders, and a shared common identity.
While Anchorage does have a few easily-identifiable neighborhoods with their own personalities and cultures, these are (unfortunately) exceptions to the rule. What dominates instead is a sense of confusion in our neighborhoods’ identities, which discourages community engagement, ownership, and pride. In contrast, a sense of belonging to the community and the physical location in which one lives encourages residents to put down roots and invest in their shared space. Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon or Government Hill neighborhoods are such examples, each having engaged communities with a long-term perspective on their neighborhood’s development.
Anchorage is relatively new city that developed due to a mix of automobile dependency, lax zoning, and rapid growth. This mix has contributed to the blandness that many commercial and residential developments in town are known for. To illustrate this lack of identity, when asking for directions in Anchorage, people often refer to cross streets or proximity to the highway, as opposed to naming their specific neighborhood. Too often referencing a neighborhood triggers nothing more than the image of a site condo or drab duplex with T-1 siding opposed to an actual destination with character. Too many neighborhoods in Anchorage are simply places to dwell; and not a place to “Live. Work. Play.
There are several solutions that will move us toward more defined and cohesive neighborhoods, and a more connected community in general:
1. Agreement on Geographic Boundaries and Names for Neighborhoods. Anchorage is riddled with neighborhoods that have multiple monikers. There is a mismatch between the names and borders of community council districts, historic districts and colloquial names, and other prominent landmark names that come from parks, trails, and lakes. For example, Valley of the Moon is both the name of a park and a colloquial neighborhood, but is split between two community council districts (South Addition and North Star). North Star has no symbolic or literal meaning to residents apart from being a community council district. This dichotomy creates an undefined sense of place and makes coherent planning for the Valley of the Moon area difficult. A city-wide effort between community councils, businesses, residents, community groups, and the Municipality to address these naming and border discrepancies would help create more definitive neighborhoods.
Perhaps one of the best examples of how this can work well would be Mountain View. The geographical boundaries, community identity, and unique features are very clearly encompassed within a generally accepted area. In stark contrast is a neighborhood in East Dowling. At one time the intersection at Jewel Lake and Raspberry Roads, commonly referred to as “Four Corners,” was poised to be developed as a Town Center. The area includes a promising mix of commercial and public space with nearby residential development, but it suffers from a generally nondescript aesthetic and is lacking in public infrastructure such as appropriate sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting. Despite its potential, this areas sits in a planning no man’s land, lumped in the geographically expansive Sand Lake Community Council. More targeted branding and investment could facilitate the growth of Four Corners as a distinct sub-community with unique amenities. As the gateway to Kincaid Park, the area could be transformed into a destination in its own right opposed to an area to simply drive through. Resuscitating the Town Center concept from the original Anchorage 2020 Comprehensive Plan would do wonders for refocusing community activity in smaller subareas of Anchorage and encourage neighborhood-oriented commercial hubs.
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On the flipside, these borders and identities cannot be arbitrarily assigned, such as the “SoNo”(South of Nordstrom) debacle, where in 2005 local businesses and the Municipality tried to unsuccessfully (in our opinions) brand a district of downtown. Downtown is one of the few well-defined and accepted neighborhoods in Anchorage; the failure of SoNo and the district concept in general was due to lack of meaning or buy-in from residents.
2. Prioritization of Multi-Use Zoning. One of the best ways to create unique neighborhoods is to incentivize connection and community through self-contained, walkable places. Zoning in Anchorage often creates strict lines between residential, commercial, and recreational areas that often do not overlap. It is difficult to create a community identity in an area that is solely comprised of duplexes or is just an expanse of mini-malls. Mixed use development through zoning should be prioritized. The Wisconsin Street area, split between Turnagain and Spenard neighborhoods, is a largely unremarkable residential development. The Rustic Goat restaurant, which opened in 2013, challenged these assumptions by creating a small commercial area that encouraged social interaction within the neighborhood, provided a landmark, and encouraged economic development. Although the neighborhood still lacks key infrastructure like sidewalks, adequate lighting, and bike lanes, this mixed use zoning (albeit limited), has made it a more attractive place to live and put down long-term roots. The removal of a playground to install increased parking for Rustic Goat may have upset some residents, but with the proximity of the Coastal Trail, Barbara Street Park, Muriel Park, and Fish Creek Park, the loss of this streetside playground is more palatable.
3. Lack of Neighborhood Identity Does Not Facilitate “Live. Work. Play.” Related to multi-use zoning is the issue of comprehensive placemaking. Anchorage’s neighborhoods today essentially forces residents to own a vehicle. Like many U.S. cities, we have been built around (non-public) motorized transport and there seems to be little appetite to change the paradigm. For example, “Ms. Aurora Borealis” lives in the Bayshore/Klatt neighborhood. She works in at the University, shops downtown, goes to the gym in Spenard, eats at restaurants in midtown, and skis at Bicentennial Park. She has accepted the fact that her Bayshore/Klatt individual neighborhood cannot provide her with the amenities she desires to fully “Live. Work. Play.” in a walkable distance from her home.
This reality has hampered neighborhood development throughout our city. Having both lived in cities where our favorite bar, restaurant, coffee shop, gym, pharmacy and grocery store were within a 15-minute walk (or a shorter bus ride) from our homes, we know there is an alternative. Unlike the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas, Anchorage could realistically be a bikeable and walkable city with effective public transport and amenities located closer to homes. As residents, we have the power to change this by demanding comprehensive planning from our Community Councils, Assembly Members and Mayor that incorporates multi-use zoning and neighborhood planning. Neighborhood residents should not simply be complacent and accept a sub-par built environment. Instead, they need to change the neighborhood-wide culture to one that promotes placemaking.
Perhaps one of the most identifiable features in our city is our robust park and trail system. Increasing awareness and access to link up with these mini-highways, as the Anchorage Park Foundation is trying to do through their Signage and Wayfinding Plan, would go a long way toward facilitating living, working, and playing near one’s home. However, the Park Foundation’s naming efforts, including unique signage for individual neighborhoods, only adds another layer onto an already confusing amalgam of neighborhood names. This further demonstrates our first point: the need for communities, nonprofits, businesses, and the municipality to partner together to rebrand and name our neighborhoods.
As young residents of this city who both live in relatively undefined neighborhoods, we become frustrated as we are forced to make up names for the places we live when explaining their locations to others. Penny lives in “Spenardigan,” the unnamed space in between Spenard and Turnagain, while Eric lives near Sullivan Arena, an area he affectionately is trying to rebrand as “The Arena District.” We understand that as a young city, Anchorage’s lack of history posits a challenge to the creation of these ingrained identities. But on the other hand, this also presents an opportunity for us to co-create our neighborhoods’ identities, increasing citizen engagement, ownership, and city pride.