Northern Urban Density

Originally Published in the Anchorage Daily News May 23 2007

KABATA (Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority) and its supporters have managed to frame the debate on the Knik Arm Crossing (one of the infamous Bridges to Nowhere) as if it was one between progressives (them) and no growth environmentalists (us). That is not and never has been the case.

Anchorage’s future depends on our successful devotion to conservatism. We must be fiscally conservative and make civic decisions with an eye toward minimizing the operational costs of our city. We must be environmentally conservative, making sure that we don’t make a mess of the most pristine urban environment left in the United States. And, finally, we must conserve the essential, irreplaceable wealth of our city – its proximity to the magnificence that is undeveloped Alaska.

Alaskans are especially and legitimately wary of density. We love our blue skies, open spaces, clean water and air. That’s why we live here. We don’t want to live in Detroit or Seattle or even Portland – too much traffic and smog and too far away from wilderness. We have started to experience the awful impacts of poorly, or unplanned, density – site condos and the traffic at Lake Otis and Tudor. We don’t want to turn Cook Inlet into the Potomac River and so we must stop pouring sewage into Cook Inlet. We must get beyond onsite septic systems before the hillside slides down on a layer of . . . . . . . .

Nonetheless, density is essential for successful conservatism in Anchorage.

Imagine Government Hill with the charm of San Francisco’s North Beach, Bootlegger Cove with the excitement of Miami’s South Beach. Think of the Hillside as a future Berkeley, California, and Spenard as Pioneer Square. Density can create great neighborhoods. Density makes possible a first class east-west rapid transit line with stops at the Airport, Historic Spenard, the Midtown Shopping District, the University District, the Medical District, and the MountainSide Residential District. It connects Kincaid Park and the Coastal Trail with Hillside Ski Areas and Chugach State Park. It fosters a similar line from Government Hill to Girdwood with stops at Ship Creek Center, Downtown, the Midtown Shopping District and park and ride facilities at Dimond and Huffman. How great would it be if you could jump on something like BART to get to Kincaid or Girdwood, no matter what the weather?

Rapid transit saves tax dollars, especially in a place the where the cost of building, maintaining and plowing roads is so great. Rapid transit makes possible affordable housing – housing with economical access to all of the amenities of Anchorage.

Density means we don’t have to sprawl. Encouraging our community to sprawl, whether it’s up the Parks Highway, or across the Knik Arm, moves Alaska farther away from those of us who live in Anchorage. When we keep our community compact, we keep Alaska close.

We live in an extreme environment. Everything costs more as a result. Utilities have to be buried twice as deeply as in communities with more temperate climates. Decisions that reduce the compactness of our community will inevitably raise somebody’s taxes. It costs more to live farther away in a northern city. The bridge will not make more affordable housing available. How can families with limited incomes afford to build (and maintain) their own roads, schools and fire stations? How can people with limited incomes afford to be the only tollpaying commuters in Anchorage?

Manhattan is 23 square miles. The City of San Francisco is 47 square miles. The non-military, non-airport, non-Chugach State Park portion of the Anchorage Bowl is 84 square miles. We have not run out of land!

During discussions this spring, members of the Anchorage Assembly expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of the Knik Arm Crossing, but voted to keep it in the plan for the purpose of further study. Now KABATA has hired a public relations firm to convince us that building the bridge is the right thing to do. Advocacy is not study! Fiscal conservatives must stop this misappropriation of public funds now! Instead, let’s get on with building a sustainable Big Wild Life for Anchorage here in the Bowl.

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