Thursday, October 1, 2009

Destruction leaves its trail in Downtown

Earlier last month, I noticed a small cottage that housed a hotel on 9th Avenue was gone. About a week later, I noticed an abandoned building that once housed a florist in East Downtown had also bitten the dust. Now more recently, a building that sat in the shadow of the new convention center has suddenly disappeared. Now I know these are not demolitions that occurred a long time ago that I just now noticed -- I know full well that these three places were still around as recent as early August as I'm in the area just about everyday. Of course this is nothing new as Downtown recently saw the Alaska Experience Theater, a neighboring 60s/70s era two story office building, and the much beloved "Wings 'n Things" restaurant meet their demise in the last two years. The addition of this new round of demolitions makes this all more than just isolated events -- it's becoming a trend. I think it's safe to say, without having to do research into each of these new demo's, that the demand for parking is too great, and therefore there's land out there that would make more profit parking cars than being occupied by a building. That's exactly what happened with the Experience Theater in 2007 which I noticed hardly attracted tourists in the summer, and was just downright abandoned during the nine months of winter. Head out there today -- especially with The Lion King playing one block over at the Performing Arts Center, and the property is just packed with cars. I can only imagine how large of a jump in profits Mark Pfeiffer (the owner) is getting out of the land compared to its previous use. Ditto for the former site of Wings 'n Things which was also converted into surface parking.

The good news is surface parking is usually a temporary use of property, and thank goodness for that. Nothing is more embarrassing and pathetic than knowing a property makes more money parking cars than being occupied by a building. It says a lot about us as residents of the city and where our priorities are. And I'm not alone. Eradicating surface parking is usually the goal cities across the country have strive for and there has been much success. If you see old postcards of cities such as Seattle, Austin, Houston, or Sacramento during the second half of the 20th century, you'll notice many city blocks entirely occupied by surface parking that if you visit today, aren't there anymore as they house condos, retail, apartments, and offices -- much of them being built just in the last 10 years despite the parking lots being around for 40 years or more. The reason for this is that we have re-entered a pre-WWII paradigm in which city planners are once again developing cities for people and not the automobile. Boston, San Francisco, New York, (and soon Seattle) have dismantled their overhead post-WWII freeways that run through their downtowns; condos and apartments in this decade have replaced offices as the most common use of highrise for the first time in US history as many residents move into gentrified city centers, and street-car systems which vanished just about everywhere in the 1940s and 50s except for say, San Francisco and New Orleans are making a comeback in places like Seattle, Sacramento, Milwaukee, and even some unsuspecting places like Dallas, Phoenix, and Charlotte, North Carolina. But I'm beginning to go off topic here. The point is while many of these newly opened properties in the heart of Anchorage will eventually revert back from parking space to even more profitable larger buildings; catering to cars should never be a meaningful priority as it only legitimizes and encourages more auto use and thus continues the status quo of the last few decades in which private car is the only way to efficiently get around.

As there has been for many decades, the complaint of lack of parking (despite already having three public garages) in Downtown won't go away for a long time. But rather than doing what we have done for the past 40 or so years, the way to address the problem is to increase alternative options for getting around. Having condos and apartments in Downtown would be a start -- right now housing is only on the perimeter in Bootleggers Cove, South Addition, and Government Hill while the few housing inside the Downtown townsite (9th to 3rd Ave, I St. to C St.) is reserved for low income, or are half-way houses. While we may not yet have the demand for street-cars and are decades away from a subway, improvements to the People Mover in addition to new zoning and building codes from the almost complete Title 21 codes, which were made to be compatible by designating high density commercial centers in Downtown and Midtown and neighborhood town centers, would be a big help imo. After all, put a bus stop in a compact piece of real estate that houses large amounts of people living and/or working with limited parking, and there's bound to be a difference.

In the end, I probably shouldn't be writing this confidently on the idea that parking lots are indeed what will replace each of these properties. After all, Anchorage is for the first time in its history entering a problem no outsider would think can happen to a city in the vast state of Alaska -- running out of land. As available land shrinks, values go up, and urban infill starts to takeoff. A text book example of this consequence is the replacement of the former Balto's Restaurant and its whole parking lot with a 4 story parking garage and 10 story office stacked on top. Another is the uprooting of a decades old trailer court neighborhood that was replaced with a series of office buildings (and more on the way) off 36th Avenue in Midtown. Another reason why I figured I should pause and factor in rising land values and not just parking demand is because the building I mentioned in the first paragraph, which recently housed the offices of management overseeing construction of the convention center, and before that, housed offices to the AFSCME union (I know, because I worked there as a janitor) doesn't look to be the only building in that block getting the axe. It's next door neighbor, the Pioneer Building, which housed Stephens Fine Art, Sub Zero Micro Lounge (is it still open?), and more recently some corny Disney Store like tourist trap selling Humpy's t-shirts and mugs has city permit notices posted on its windows that say "demo". Considering that this building and its already razed neighbor are sitting on the newly designed and fashionable F Street between the PAC and the convention center, I think we may be seeing a project already proposed for the area come next spring when construction season starts again. The location of these two sites is just too good to be left as parking for a long time. I personally think the two sites would make a good location for 4 to 6 story mixed use buildings housing condos and apartments on the top floors, and retail/dining on the bottom floor. A similar building (see below post) is being proposed across from Town Square on the JC Penny parking lot. As of now, we don't have any type of medium sized building that serves this purpose. Right now Downtown has either small cottages, or overbearing souless office towers.

btw also worth noting, the annual Fur Rondy pancake feed also takes place inside the Pioneer Building. Certainly Rondy officials will have to find another location, or face an angry mob looking for there buttermilk goodness.


Dongshow said...

Thank you for writing this article, I've been waiting a while to hear someone in Anchorage say a lot of the stuff you've laid out.

Parking is a major problem downtown, as the entire west side seems to be nothing but surface parking lots. This land could be used to bring people and jobs into the city if redeveloped properly, most of the lots are normally only 1/2 full (with spots on the street plentiful) , and completely vacant at night. I believe a major cause of this is our city subsidizing parking spaces up to $145 month. Surely this money could be more properly spent on the People Mover.

Secondly, are mandatory parking laws create a large problem, mandating retail parking has kept a lot of business from developing the eastern side of downtown (where there is a decent population) because there isn't the space to provide a proper sized building and provide the mandated parking. Our residential parking regulations are just as bad, with something like .8 spots per bedroom, proper dense housing isn't possible, and prohibits residential development downtown.

I'd like to complain about the low density threshold the city has zoned into place but I'll keep it simple for the moment. Thanks for the great article. One question, what type of policy would you like to see put in place to encourage development downtown or midtown.

marcus said...

Oh thank you.

As for the types of policies that I'd like to see in Midtown and Downtown, I would have to first admit that Midtown has gotten itself into a very tricky situation, to say the least for which a clear cut solution isn't looking at me straight in the face. With that said, I think what can be done to help urbanize Midtown first and foremost would be the revised Title 21 (nearly complete) building and zoning codes coupled with the Midtown Comprehensive Plan, both of which aim at indeed making Midtown a second city center. Title 21 includes codes requiring future developments to build the parking lot in the back with the building going up to the sidewalk with a streetside entrance. Replacing limited zoning with mixed-use zoning is also mentioned in both plans. The Midtown Comp.Plan might mention this if I recall, but I think carving out new roads on some of Midtown's superblocks (such as the one that contains Wal-Mart and Century 16) would also open up land for expansion while also preventing future big box stores, sprawling office parks with too much landscaping (BP), and other short term roadside developments that live for the now and don't take the long-term into mind. Add in a public parking garage along with streetside parking on these new streets (borrowing this idea from Begich), and you take pressure off developers to meet parking requirements. Downtown has its work cutout compared to Midtown of course, but like you said, ending the subsidization of parking would be a good start while also providing some incentives such as tax breaks or whatnot for developers looking to bring mixed-use housing downtown. Throw in Title 21, and Downtown should avoid another disastrous Office Depot.

btw I haven't read it myself, but from the few points I've seen author Donald Shoup make, I'd recommend looking into the book 'The High Cost of Free Parking'.