Saturday, September 27, 2008

America's newest whipping boy: Wasilla

Being that this is a blog based out of Alaska, I suppose I'd have to acknowledge at some point that my governor is running to be the second most powerful person on Earth. With that, these last three weeks or so have been quite amusing as we Alaskans watch the world's discovery of Wasilla (Sarah Palin's hometown for those of you living in NORAD) like rubberneckers at the scene of a car accident. It may be ugly to watch... but we have to watch! And oh is it ugly! As my fellow Anchoragites can attest, Wasilla has long been the whipping boy of our city as the lower income blue collar town of some 9000 residents is home to several taxidermy services, "saloons" instead of bars, and our favorite place to shop -- "Knik Kountry Liquor". Over the years, our young sister city in the Valley has not faired so well in fixing its image crisis. As Anchorage physically matures in its urban appearance, many of the trailer mobile homes being removed to make way for office buildings have been known to relocate to Wasilla which welcome trailers with open arms. Mobile homes headed down the highway to Wasilla... not the greatest image a town would want in the minds of potential residents and businesses. And as the national and international media parachute into town since McCain's choice of Palin as VP late last month, they too are now being exposed to the creepy crawly creature that is Wasilla, Alaska. But it's not just the issues of Palin's former church, or the high amount of underground meth labs that has the media talking in negative light about this town. It's also Wasilla itself and its urban form, or lack thereof.

"...A town that is a soulless strip mall without sidewalks" is how New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd gently put it when describing the urban scenery of our beloved Wasilla during a recent visit to the 49th state. The Wall Street Journal had a great article that went into detail about Wasilla's urban dilemma as it goes through the growing pains of fast paced suburbanization at the cost of making long time residents feel out of place while also loosing its honor as the starting line of the annual Iditarod dog sled race due to so many driveways and roads being cut through the Iditarod trail. "Wasilla has neither a planning nor a zoning board, and it shows", wrote Michael M. Phillips for the WSJ article. I think I most enjoyed the piece written by The New York Observer's Joe Conason who when interviewing a local school official (who shall remain nameless) proceeded to tear her own hometowns pride to shreds:

"Wasilla is a hellhole, even by Alaskan standards, where there are plenty of hellhole towns and villages. Wasilla is an ugly place that shows a complete absence of planning, design, or sense of public vision".

You know your city is bad when not only does it meet the basic hellhole requirements, but also impresses the Alaskan Division of Weights and Measurements in meeting the local standards of what constitutes a true All-Alaskan hellhole (North Pole, Alaska is #1). But to stop this from becoming a bash-Wasilla fest (which I know is tempting for many of you out there!), I think we have to acknowledge the fact that Wasilla is not the only city of its kind. Since the days when the automobile replaced the horse and the Interstate highway replaced dirt roads, Wasilla is only taking its cues from the rest of the United States. There's a reason why the Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, Burger King, etc. fit so well into Wasilla without the hassle of having to conform to some sort of specific building code. Anchorage is just as guilty of this too. Of course compared to Wasilla, Anchorage clearly cozies up to zoning and planning, but all one needs to do is look at the haphazard development in Midtown to see that most of our city history in the late 20th century shunned what we now have coming in the form of the developing Title 21 codes. It was all about winning the land-grab south of downtown and building whatever you wanted. And to this day we still have commercial building developers and state transportation planners who are still in this mindset that it's 1968 when concrete and the automobile was the way of the future. I have no qualms about the Highway to Highway project as it looks to be promising with a portion of the highway being buried underground, but the Knik Arm Bridge?? The thought of giving a long term future to what we've been doing in Anchorage for the last 40 or so years is insane and reckless.

With this in mind, can Wasilla ever pick itself up and plan for the future in a time where gas prices are continuing to rise, environmental concern is now mainstream, and the automobile backlash is sweeping towns and cities across the country? Maybe so, or maybe not. Maybe not in that an article from Newsweek interviewed a Wasilla city-planner who tells the story of a man back in the 1980s who was fired and had his effigy burned in the parking lot of the city office after attempting to tweak and add restrictions to the city's comprehensive plan. But then again, maybe there is hope. Plans are in the works for the Valley's first town center. Though totally artificial and nowhere near the center of town, Creekside Town Square could be promising. But then again the proposal is already swept into political scandal involving the mayor of Wasilla and a deal cut with the developers while The Frontiersman reports that the development will look more like the sprawl retail already found up and down the Parks Highway. Add to that the major disappointment of what Glenn Square in Anchorage has become in terms of being pedestrian friendly along with the plans falling apart for Muldoon's town center. Whatever the case, if Wasilla thought being the whipping boy of Anchorage was harsh, they might wanna prepare for the long term when it comes to how the Lower 48 will critique their towns physical appearance should Sarah Palin's star continue to shine nationally in the decades to come.

a leasing ad for Wasilla's Creekside Town Square:

Sunday, September 21, 2008

JL Tower's LED display finally gets its due

I was kinda surprised as I picked up the Sunday edition of the ADN this morning to see that the LED lighting of the new JL Tower made the front page. Ermm... the penthouse of the new building has been lit with blue, green, and even red (for a short time) since the dark nights of December '07. So why report on the towers colorful floodlights now? Well apparently the lighting show has finally been tuned after tweaking around with the display since late last year. Okay, well that's cool. What I find really appealing about the buildings nighttime appearance however, is the white floodlights from the ground that brighten the entire building facade. Despite making the building look as if it's clamoring for even more attention, I really liked the idea of bathing the whole facade in light (just as long as it's on only for the early evening and not the entire night). Anyways so todays article goes on to interview the developers at JL Properties as they talk about how they have used recycled materials as tabletop counters, exercise rooms for employees, a Kaladi Bros. cafe, blah blah blah. I guess what I found really amusing was the urban analysis that a consultant who was interviewed for the article used when describing the future prosperity of the area where the JL Tower sits:

"The building is a harbinger of what's to come...
The area is attractive to builders because of its expanses of undeveloped land, especially compared to crowded downtown".

Expanses of land? More than half of the available land in that area is gone! Unlike downtown, which has public parking garages readily available to the benefit of developers, the developers behind 'Plaza 36' squandered the former trailer park neighborhood with acres of surface parking lots for their buildings. Each of the parking lots for the JL Tower, ASRC, and Centerpoint Plaza have a larger footprint than the building itself. From the appearance of it, it seems only the new Alutiiq Plaza and the AlaskaUSA Financial Center have more building and less parking (I could be wrong though). Anyways the consultant goes on to say:

"From a public transportation point of view, it makes sense to concentrate offices in one area because it's easier for workers to take the bus".

If we're going to talk about it from a public transport point of view, I think it would have been preferable that the buildings in the Plaza 36 area give up some of their ego and join the heart of Midtown rather than be on the edge of Midtown in a sea of asphalt. In other words, do what the developers behind 188 West Northern Lights did and build a tower that truly cares about the future of Anchorage. Unlike the JL Tower, 188 WNL is situated between Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson in front of C Street -- perhaps the most visible location in the city today. The building offers space for ground floor retail while the parking garage is snugged quietly into the building. A first for Anchorage that deserves positive recognition. Instead of the People Mover bus making a detour to serve the new Plaza 36 office park on the edge of Midtown, workers in the JL Tower could have walked to existing bus stops already in place in the heart of Midtown, had the JL Tower been located there instead of the edge. With that, here's a map that shows the remaining land available for the developers at JL Properties when including surface parking:

click to enlarge