Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Anchorage finally gets a cruise ship

Monday morning saw the arrival of the first cruise ship to make Anchorage a port of call in 25 years. Holland America's m.s. Amsterdam departed Seattle for a 2 week Alaska cruise that includes stops in Sitka, Juneau, Kodiak, Homer, and Alaska's largest city. In total, the m.s. Amsterdam will make nine stops in Anchorage this summer each with around 1,300 passengers and 600 crew members. Excursions that are offered to tourists upon landing at the Port of Anchorage include day trips to Talkeetna, and flights over Mt. McKinley -- something that other port of call towns can not offer due to their distance. Holland America also recently announced that the Amsterdam will be returning to Anchorage in summer 2011.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Spenard Reconstruction: My Take

(click to enlarge)

Just thought I'd upload this little diddy I made on how I envision Spenard one day looking like. I wouldn't so much call it fantasy as it is more of a reasonable prediction on Spenards future within the next 50 years. The stretch in question is that of the intersection with Benson north to Fireweed Lane; the same stretch under discussion by the city as it looks to reduce Spenard from four lanes to three. While the city looks to bring Spenard into the 21st century and more in line with its increasingly bohemian and bicycle oriented culture, there are several business owners who prefer to keep Spenard in the 1950s. The problem with todays Spenard is that there is no turn lane which results in cars weaving in and out of traffic, cars collecting up behind left turning cars, and no bicycle lanes. Combine the three and accidents are waiting to happen, which they have. Some business owners and others who are simply uneducated will claim that construction on Spenard will result in another Arctic Boulevard fiasco in which access to businesses will be hindered by road and lane closures. Interestingly, these critics of Arctic are silent on the finished product that construction on Arctic Blvd has brought about. Critics claimed that reducing Arctic to two lanes will result in more congestion. In fact the opposite is true. Also, all businesses along Arctic have survived. If anything, opposition to Spenard reconstruction seems to be more about partisanship than the street itself. Newly elected Mayor Dan Sullivan stated in an ADN interview shortly before he took office last year that he is open to experimenting with reordering the layout of the road to see how tests fare. Yet the posters with the cruel caricature of former Mayor Mark Begich still hang in the windows of businesses that want to keep Spenard in the 50s.

While the city's current plans call for Spenard to go from four lanes to three (with a turn lane), my proposal seeks to narrow Spenard down to two lanes flat. In my plans I also added an intersection (a raised intersection at that). As we speak, the city is in the process of realigning one of the side streets that feed into Spenard so as to align with the opposite side street that leads to the Bear Tooth Theater. With this construction work happening, Spenard will finally have side streets that meet and make a four-way intersection possible. I decided to go ahead and add stop signs in one scenario, and a stoplight in the other for this future intersection. I also decided to add colored bike lanes, which have become more common in cities around the world along with bicycle boxes, which the city has been exploring. Bicycle boxes allow bikers to wait at a stoplight directly in front of motorists so as to be visible and not runned over by vehicles making right turns. Some may see narrowing Spenard down to two lanes as extreme -- but it's not. Once upon a time 4th Avenue in Downtown was four lanes. Today, at two lanes and a 25 mph speed limit, 4th Avenue is not going through any armageddon as some Spenard business owners predict will happen to them. Lets also not forget that half of Spenard is already at two lanes anyways. In this already existent two lane section of Spenard, Gwennies still serves huge breakfast plates to tourists, the Harley Davidson shop has doubled in size, one hotel expanded, two national chain hotels were built, and a Village Inn restaurant along with a few other businesses have opened. Just don't expect Spenard reconstruction opponents to remind you of that.

btw I should note that not all business owners along Spenard are opposed to the project. Among the major supporters of reconstruction is the owner of REI, the largest business in Spenard.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

More classy condos planned for the summer

The ADN just published an article that reports on the developer behind the trendy new Aurora Square development (seen above) and its further plans in both South Anchorage and Government Hill that are to come this summer. Taking a step away from the traditional and ugly condo projects that have sprung up throughout the Anchorage Bowl in the last several decades, the Anchorage based Lumen Group plans to build more condos that are far more classier in aesthetics, more energy efficient, and incorporate rooftop terraces for social gathering and private gardening. All the units built so far in Aurora Square have been sold while six out of eight units for South Anchorage's soon to be built Lumen Park development have been reserved. The niche market for these pricey homes include young professionals and seniors looking to downsize. For the nearly complete Aurora Square development, the target is professors and doctors who want to live near the U-Med district, as well as those in general who have double income and are childless. The Mountain View Forum blog reported that designers and artists have also snatched up units.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Anchorage Bike Plan unanimously approved

Anchorage bikers rejoice! The Anchorage Bike Plan passed the Assembly. And with flying colors at that. While this news is already known to just about everyone in the city now, it deserves a spot on this blog and with good reason. As of now, the Municipality of Anchorage has 8 miles of bike lanes. In 2029, this will increase from 8 to 109 miles. I can't tell you the difference between a bike lane and a paved shoulder, but according to the ADN, Anchorage will have over 50 miles of paved shoulders in the city in 2029. As of now, we apparently have zero. Interestingly, we are also expected to get 4 miles of "bike boulevards". A quick google image search results in this. Embarrassingly, I can't exactly say how these "boulevards" work. If you look at this chart showing the stats on the expansions that are expected, you'll notice that the greenbelt trails such as Chester Creek, Campbell Creek, or the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail will jump by only about 15 miles in the next 20 years. The reason for this is because while those trails are great and all, they're purely recreational. If you want to do some nature biking on the weekend, great! But as of now, everyday biking in Anchorage is almost non-existent. It sounds foreign to us, especially if like me you were born and raised here in this auto loving town, but in many cities around the world people bike to everyday places like the grocery store, school, and *gasp*, even work! Perhaps my biggest culture shock when it comes to transportation came a few years ago when I visited Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Not that I wasn't expecting it as I knew that just about every road had designated bike lanes; rather it was the demographics and sheer number of people biking. On these bikes over there were young kids, old men, business men in suits, hobo's, and mothers with children (the children sat in these clever wheelbarrow like contraptions in the front). Biking wasn't something you do in a special Lance Armstrong inspired bike suit on the weekend. Biking was truly an optional form of transportation. So common was biking as a every mode of transport that bicycles have their own street lights at intersections. Near the main train station in the historical city center sits a bicycle parking garage. Yes, you read that right. A bicycle parking garage ...but as usual, I'm getting off topic...

The point is, cities in the United States are realizing the value in bicycle and other alternative modes of transport outside the car; and now Anchorage joins that list of cities that want to expand on this money saving and sustainable niche alternative. Indeed biking can be done in Anchorage and therefore technically is an option, but it's not a realistic and practical option. Even with every road in the city having a bike lane, biking from Downtown to Muldoon or Dimond is not exactly a conveinient thing to do. This is where the importance of city design and more specifically, Title 21 building codes, come into play. As of now the city is heavily tilted in favor of the personal automobile. As a result, parking lots dominate the landscape and destinations are placed far apart. Downtown is really the only part of town today in which pedestrians, drivers, and bikers are on more equal footing. Walking from the Captain Cook to Humpy's or the museum a few blocks down is easy. Walking from Midtown to Dimond on the other hand is unthinkable. The same applies to bikes, and a well designed city is very important no matter how many bike lanes you have.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

AMATS moves Knik Arm Bridge to short term list

As if we didn't see it coming, AMATS (the 5 member board that oversees federally funded transportation priorities for the South Central region of the state including Anchorage) has moved the Knik Arm Bridge project from the long term list of priorities back to the short term. Late last year when Anchorage Mayor Begich was still in office, he and two anti-bridge Assembly members voted in a 3 to 2 majority over the two pro-bridge members from the state DOT to move the project into the list of long term projects. This would mean that more immediate and much needed projects that actually affect Anchorage and Valley residents would take priority and become reality. But not long after this was achieved, the mayors from the Mat-Su including disgraced mayor Roger Purcell of Houston (not Houston, TX for you outsiders) took AMATS to court saying that public hearings on the decision were not made. The mayors from the Valley knew full well that if the court struck down the AMATS decision, then the process would start all over but with one major change -- pro-bridge Dan Sullivan is now mayor of Anchorage. Now the majority swings in the favor of the Knik Arm Bridge proposal 3 to 2. For those not in the know, AMATS decisions aren't usually done before the public in the first place. But of course the mayors of Houston and Wasilla see the bridge as a benefit since obviously the bridge landing will be in the Mat-Su and in turn bring opportunities of economic growth at the expense of the Anchorage economy and tax base.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know I'm not supportive of this project. While I may be a cheerleader for steel beams rising into the air and just about any construction project going on in Anchorage (and the world for that matter), the bridge would be a death knell for the city for both business and residents. Figures already show that toll costs would take decades to cover the cost of the bridge -- a cost that is rising every year since the bridge committee known as KABATA was formed about 10 years ago. At this point the bridge is somewhere in the hundreds of millions... exact numbers are impossible to know as they keep changing every time the latest story on the Bridge to Nowhere is published. Should the bridge be built, funds from AMATS would be sucked dry by the bridge depriving both Anchorage and the Valley of important transport projects that were handed to us via AMATS by the federal government. Why blow what we have in federal money on a bridge that a news source found would actually take LONGER for Valley commuters to get from Anchorage to the Valley and back (in addition to paying a toll)? Most importantly, a bridge linking Anchorage with the sparsely populated western end of the Mat-Su Borough would inevitably lead to urban sprawl as far as the eye can see. Anchorage is in the process of replacing temporary strip malls, dusty parking lots, and other ramshackle buildings with more permanent easy on the eye buildings as developable land runs out and property values rise. From a visual standpoint, Anchorage is on the threshold of looking like a real city. With businesses and residents leaving the city, what happens to our tax base? City funds will drain, quality of schools and other quality of life issues will decrease provoking a further exodus and turn Anchorage into the likes of other cities in the Lower 48. We know these cities -- hundreds of thousands if not millions commute into cities only to repeat their 2 hour commute back in the evening. Unlike Phoenix, Atlanta, or Houston, among others that spread beyond the horizon, Anchorage isn't surrounded by flat plains. The cost to maintain miles and miles of sewer lines, streets, lights, etc etc is non existent due to our limited growth space.

I love my construction projects, but projects that come at the expense of the economic, social, and financial well being of every one of us is not cool.

btw I hope I don't come off as purely alarmist. A project being listed on the short term list doesn't mean that it will happen. Just a disclaimer..

Saturday, March 20, 2010

People Mover device gets the green light

Earlier last month the ADN reported on an idea proposed by Mayor Dan Sullivan in which People Mover buses would be equipped with devices that would allow buses to get through red light traffic. Already in use in other cities in the Lower 48, People Mover buses would use the same technology used by emergency vehicles so as to get passengers to their destinations faster via extending green lights or turning red lights to green. I decided not to bother posting the article here for the cynic in me thought this proposal wouldn't fly. Sure it was the Mayor himself proposing the idea along with a transit friendly Assembly majority, but I suspected that Assembly members would feel the wrath from backwards constituents and be pressured to vote no. Instead, the Assembly voted unanimously in favor of it! Starting next week, two bus routes will begin a one year trial period with results to be reported roughly a year from now. Read the article here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Goregous Vancouver

With the Olympics now over, I thought I'd pay tribute to the city of Vancouver BC with this awesome vid that shows just how idealistic (at least some parts) of the city are from an urban planning perspective. If you're a regular reader on topics within the field of urban planning and land use, you've probably lost count of how many times Vancouver has been brought up as an example for urban policy initiatives.

Anyways back to the video; it's just too good. You have the reliable mass transit, the residential towers in the background, the open public space filled with activity, and the peaceful lakefront in front of the central business district and BC Place.

While I'm at it, here's another neat video this time in time lapse:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Top 10 Significant Projects of the Last Decade

Good to be back! If you read the previous post (scroll down), you knew that I could not attend to the blog for I had things to do in addition to the coming holiday season which is like a vortex that usually takes you in about a week or two in advance and doesn't let you recover until some time early January. It's rough. But I'm back, so lets get this blog back on the road and pretend the lull never happened... just don't scroll down to my previous post.

Anyways for a while I've been debating with myself whether to do this or not... One of my pet peeves has long been the annual end of the year review. You've all seen this. On just about every form of media be it newspaper, websites, or most notably television; end of the year reviews are just excuses particularly for cable channels to run old stock footage and not worry about new and original material for the weeks show. The end of 2009 was especially bad because it also brought in the decade in review. But hey, besides it being February for which I will stand out and get noticed by the masses for my two month late review, this last decade was one that Anchorage had not seen since the 1980s. If you lived here in the 1990s, you knew Anchorage was D E A D. The biggest thing to happen to Anchorage in the 90s was the arrival of Wal-Mart... oh and Schucks Auto Supply. Contrast that to the 80s for which Anchorage saw the new museum, Sullivan Arena, Egan Center, 5th Avenue Mall, Performing Arts Center, and two of Alaska's tallest (and still tallest) towers in Downtown. While oil doesn't flow down the pipeline in the great quantity that it did in the 80s, the 2000s were good to Anchorage if like me, you're into construction stalking. With that said, if anything in this world deserves a 10 year review, it's of course the projects that rised into the sky throughout the Anchorage Bowl. So lets get started with #10:

10. Alutiiq Plaza - Midtown
Not very well known due to its tucked away location, but I had to add Alutiiq Plaza to the top 10. It deserves it. In response to the old criticism of uninspiring bland office buildings that went up in the last 40 years, this last decade has seen a shift with an attempt to give nod to native Alaskan architecture. The first tries have been ugly as can be seen with the Alaska Native Hospital off Tudor Road. The architects of Alutiiq Plaza however are the first to have pulled it off successfully. Drive by this place at night and check out the native symbols on the pane of glass which are lit to give the building an even more charming look than its already nice daytime appearance.

9. Linny Pacillo Parking Garage - Downtown
For some years, Linny Pacillo was known by many in Downtown as the Meter Ferry. I don't know how many people she rescued by putting coins in nearly expired parking meters over the years (while irking the city), but her name lives on with the new Linny Pacillo Parking Garage. Opened at around the same time as the new convention center across the street in 2008, the garage was built to makeup for the large amount of parking spaces lost due to the footprint of the new convention center. A proposal for a skybridge connecting the garage to the Atwood office tower across the street has been floating around for some time now. We'll see if that ever gets off the ground.

8. UAA Consortium Library - UMed District
In its 50+ year history, I would say UAA (formally ACC) had two significant events when it came to new buildings. The first was the founding of the new campus in East Anchorage in the 1960s. The second significant event came in the earlier part of this last decade with the opening of the new consortium library. The exterior is one thing, but the interior is quite another with its daring use of colors, materials, and glass curtain that lets in large amounts of sunlight. This is without a doubt a break from the usual mundane and otherwise forgettable buildings sprinkled throughout the UAA campus. You don't have to be a student to check out the inside of this library for yourself. But you do need to pay for parking sadly. Check out the Consortium Library gallery at Flickr.

7. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation - Midtown
As mentioned earlier, an old complaint by Anchorage residents has long been the stock of unimaginative box shaped high rises in Midtown and Downtown. The early 2000s opening of the ASRC building in Midtown brought an end to that box shaped building streak. The ASRC was also the first major office building to incorporate Alaskan native elements for which a slew of imitators would follow.

6. JL Tower - Mi
Near the ASRC sits the 14 storey JL Tower -- named after JL Properties, the developers (at least I'm assuming that this is why its called the JL Tower) behind this building. What I love about it is that it gives us sort of our own Empire State Building what with the LED lights on the buildings penthouse. Like the ESB, the JL Tower has its penthouse lit every night making it visible from many parts of town with special colors commemorating holidays or special events. My personal favorite light show is on Halloween night when the building pulsates orange in a frantic motion so as to give it a haunted house feel. Some shots of the JL at night here.

5. McKinley Tower Apartments Restoration - Downtown
A restored apartment building doesn't sound like a big deal worthy of making it on a top 10 list, but if you've been in Anchorage a long time, you know this is a HUGE deal! Built in the early 50s, the McKinley Tower was a survivor of the 1964 earthquake, but did not survive building code standards which resulted in its doors being shuttered some time later. In the 1970s a shady developer buys the building at a city auction and plans to convert the building to office use. In the meantime, shady developer decides it would be a brilliant idea to paint the building in a groovy pink and red paint scheme. The plans for a reopened office tower never materialize as shady developer runs into financial problems while also being convicted of murdering his wife. Meanwhile the city of Anchorage is left with a pink windowless abandoned building well into the 90s. Finally developer Marc Marlow buys the building and begins sanding off the paint in the late 90s and early 2000s. Marlow too has financial trouble and as a result, the building is left covered in scaffolding for about five years. Finally with tax breaks from the city and money from the federal government, Marlow is able to move the project forward again and bring back the McKinley Tower to its former glory. Since buying the building, Marlow tossed around the idea of making it a hotel, condos, etc, but the federal government required that Marlow restore the building to its original use and its original paint scheme for historical preservation if he is to get a piece of their money. My entire childhood consisted of seeing the building in its pink stage of life. Today I can't get enough when seeing the building at night with some of its occupants lights on and an occasional big screen tv in view. It's hard to imagine that it really is restored and inhabited. Last I heard, Marlow is now working on restoring the tallest building in Fairbanks, which also happens to be abandoned as well. Best of luck to Fairbanks.

4. 188 West Northern Light - Midtown
Speaking of the JL Tower and McKinley Tower Apartments, 188 WNL is another 14 storey building that is worth making the list. Unlike the nearby JL Tower however, the developers and architects of 188 WNL took a different approach to developing the site. Unlike other Midtown highrises, 188 WNL is built in a more compact Downtown style layout. The building is built up to the sidewalk, the bottom floor has space for retail stores or restaurants, and parking for the building is in a nicely hidden garage above it. This mixed-use tower is a text book example of what is expected out of more Midtown buildings as seen under the rewritten Title 21 building codes which call for a more dense Midtown in order to deal with the lack of open developable space in the increasingly crowded Anchorage Bowl.

3. Anchorage Museum Expansion - Downtown
First building in Anchorage to be designed by a high profile architect? Probably. In any case, 2009 saw the opening of the expansion wing to the Anchorage Museum after a decade of planning for such an expansion. Designed by British architect David Chipperfield, the new wing reorientates the museums official entrance to the west rather than facing the Federal Building across the street to the south. In addition to the new entrance and the parkland in front of it, the new building is equipped with modern security and temperature technologies thus allowing the Anchorage Museum to host more high profile events such as an Andy Warhol exhibit (which I think is later this year). More recently, an extension to the Folkwang museum under the watch of Mr. Chipperfield opened in Essen, Germany last month.

2. Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center - Downtown
Strictly from an architectural perspective, I would place the new museum ahead of the Dena'ina convention center. But when including other variables such as the publicity it received, the controversy in getting the project approved by voters, and its potential on raising revenue for the city in years to come, the Dena'ina takes the #2 spot. Rather than replacing the existing Egan Center two blocks north, the Dena'ina was built so as to become the main convention space while the Egan Center acts as spillover space for larger conventions and events. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but the Dena'ina absolutely trumps the Egan in floor space by leaps and bounds. The new convention center also takes pressure off the Sullivan Arena by allowing more Aces games to be played at the arena while gun shows, home and garden, and other floor shows move Downtown (at least in theory that's what was touted).

1. Concourse C - Stevens International
I know I have readership outside Alaska, so if you ever travel back to Anchorage, you don't have to go far to see what's new in the city. Upon getting off the plane, chances are you'll be standing in the most visited new structure in the state. Concourse C, which has been in the planning stages since at least the mid 1990s, finally opened in the summer of 2004. For any born and raised Anchoragite, seeing the new terminal on opening day was a big deal. For the first time ever, we now have those horizontal escalators that allow you to get past long stretches of hallway faster. The new terminal also now airs the CNN Airport network on the tv's in the waiting area! Even the baggage claim has flat screen tv's running advertisements! It's like we have a real airport now! So much of a point of pride has Concourse C became that it made the cover of the GCI phonebook! Twice!