Anchorage dreams of turning a plague of parking lots into downtown revitalization

Through the window of his office on the eighth floor of Anchorage, Alaska‘s City Hall, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz says he sees a dispiriting expanse of street-level parking lots. But in the empty space, Berkowitz said he also sees “blank canvas.”

What I really see is the potential for us to do something that transforms downtown,” Berkowitz explained.

Compared with some parts of the city, the 113 blocks of downtown Anchorage’s central business district have largely languished, with little to no new development in years, and no housing in more than a decade.

The Anchorage Downtown Partnership (ADP), founded decades ago, has formally recognized the business need for downtown housing. The organization’s board set a goal of helping build 500 new units of housing by 2020, said executive director Jamie Boring. Boring said his organization hopes to position itself as a liaison between developers and the city.

ADP is a private non-profit corporation charged with management of the Downtown Improvement District (DID). It helps provide clean, safe and vital services throughout the DID, provides marketing and event promotion throughout the DID, and serves as an advocate for the business and property owners within the DID on issues affecting downtown.

Covering 119 square blocks, downtown property owners created the improvement district to help improve the cleanliness of downtown; to help decrease crime; to increase occupancy rates, investment values and lease income; and to generally stimulate economic development and improve the quality of life in downtown.

The downtown has many advantages over those of other cities, such as the beautiful backdrop of the Chugach Mountains, the headquarters of major Alaska Native and private corporations, art galleries, and a well-regarded museum. An extensive trail network and upscale residential neighborhoods lie immediately to the south.

But those numerous surface parking lots are sucking the life from the downtown. Their industrial waterfront is in need of significant redevelopment, which would reconnect the city center to their water. That, along with more downtown residents, would do wonders to revitalize the place.

But it’s not just a plague of surface parking lots that’s devitalizing the downtown. Bad highway planning is also to blame. Interstate highways should ideally bring traffic into a city without disrupting or severing neighborhoods. That’s not the case in Anchorage, where the highway cuts right through the heart of downtown.

While many might see the lifeless parking lots, the ugly waterfront, and the disruptive highway as impediments to revitalization, smart cities see them as renewal assets, the ingredients of revitalization. This perspective was first described in The Restoration Economy (B-K 2002) and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill 2008). It sounds like Mayor Berkowitz is likewise viewing downtown Anchorage as possessing a wealth of renewable assets.

Featured photo via Adobe Stock.

See full Alaska Dispatch News article by Devin Kelly.

See Anchorage Downtown Partnership website.

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