Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Legacy of Mayor Mark Begich

For those living in a cave, earlier this week we saw Mayor Mark Begich become Senator Mark Begich at the swearing in ceremony at the Capitol in Washington as he took over the seat formally held for the last four decades by Ted Stevens. With this new position, Begich could potentially continue his career for decades to come leaving a legacy for Alaska like that of his predecessor if not greater by the time he retires. While Senator Begich is just starting the prime of his political career, it's his handling of Anchorage that deserves tremendous respect and should not be forgotten. Not since perhaps the Knowles Administration in the 80s has Anchorage seen such great investment into itself. More specifically, when relating to urban issues, Begich has been a champion of responsible development and sustainability. From getting sidewalks actually plowed, to bus shelters across the Bowl, to the renovated McKinley Tower, what Begich has done for the city will go into history as a stark contrast to the slow growth and lack of urban responsibility of the 1990s.

Personally speaking, there were of course moments when I was not proud of moves made by our former mayor relating to urban issues. Begich's lack of action over the Wal-Mart controversy in Muldoon, his support of Glenn Square in Mountain View, and his plan to heal the intersection of Tudor and Lake Otis by simply adding more turn lanes were off puting, but hey, Mark Begich isn't Jane Jacobs. Speaking of Ms. Jacobs, President-elect Barack Obama is actually familiar with who Jane Jacobs was and the books shes written in the past about our cities and their urban issues. This doesn't mean Obama will be in lockstep with the urbanist mindset as he can't afford to exclude those in the electoral rich rural and suburban areas, but Obama unlike several of our last presidents does have the street smarts and knowledge as a resident and community organizer from Southside Chicago about what a city faces. I think the same goes for Begich. While Anchorage is a far cry from Chicago in terms of density, walkability, and social issues, Mark was born and raised in Anchorage and can appreciate the city like it's his baby in which he wants only the best future for it. But Begich also has to be practical if he wants to save his career.

With the not-so-proud moments that came during Begich's term, it's the good that came to Anchorage that in the end still outweigh the negatives. Look to the left of this post and you'll see links to the Anchorage Parks Foundation and Destination Downtown. Both were started during Begich's term, and both are proactive groups that are there to help get the public involved. Speaking of parks, Mayor Begich was successful in getting Anchorage voters to vote in 2006 (or was it 07?) for a parks bond. Something that hasn't happened in ages. The People Mover also got support from voters thanks to a mayor who believed strongly in our bus system. Anchorage voters were also swayed by Begich's pitch for a new convention center which would be financed by an increase in bed tax rather than residential tax. Other major changes that altered downtown include the expansion to the Anchorage Museum, the renovated McKinley Tower (formally MacKay Building), and the E Street Corridor from 9th Avenue down to, if things work out, a possible pedestrian bridge to the Alaska Railroad train station. A couple of other projects that would have altered the look of downtown but were not successfully given the green light included renovating the Delaney Park Strip, and building a multi-story mixed-use building on the corner of 3rd and H (the tower was cancelled due to the parcel of land sitting on weak Bootleggers Clay). Mark was however successful in getting a private developer to build a mixed-use tower in Midtown and getting businesses such as Credit Union 1 to open up a branch (the first bank in Mountain View in years) as part of a project to help revive Mountain View -- a neighborhood wide project also receiving the blessings of the mayor. Another historic neighborhood, Government Hill, also had Begich behind their back as the group behind building the Knik Arm Crossing (headed by former mayor George Wuerch) never formally received the support of our mayor. Begich did however take action and met with Mayor Menard of the Valley to work a deal for the creation of a transit authority that would oversee the linkage of the Valley to Anchorage via commuter rail on the existing tracks of the Alaska Railroad. Plans for the commuter rail are still being worked out.

There's certainly more good things that I can list coming out of the Begich Administration, but if there was one issue that got me out of my seat and applauding, it was the effort Begich put into working out a deal to save the 4th Avenue Theater. In the end, the building was turned down by voters to be under Muni property, but Begich gets an E for Effort for saving a treasure that could have been converted into a fitness center had a pair of developers had it their way (the developers eventually pulled out amidst the outcry from locals once it made print). Tonight, I think I'll toast my drink to our successful mayor and wish him many more decades of continued success. +1 Begich.