Muni planning commission approves controversial Elmore extension

Public testimony from both those for and against the road lasted around two hours at Monday's Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN - Anchorage)
Public testimony from both those for and against the road lasted around two hours at Monday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Anchorage’s Planning and Zoning Commission last night [Monday] voted unanimously to move forward with the Northern Access Project.

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The controversial road would connect Elmore Road and Bragaw Street through the city’s U-Med district. But it needs to clear several more hurdles before it’s built.

Despite spirited protests from opponents of the project outside of the assembly chambers, lasting until the final minutes before the meeting, Anchorage’s Planning and Zoning Commission opted to approve the road’s proposed route, cutting between the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University campuses.

“All in favor of the Walker motion, please raise their hand. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” Board Chair Jim Fergusson said. “That motion carries.”

Two members were absent from the vote.

The nine members of the Planning and Zoning Commission are appointed by the mayor. Commissioners help write policies and ordinances and make recommendations to the Assembly relating to land use planning within the Municipality.

The current board was appointed by former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The approval comes after the municipal planning division released a memo last week, recommending the road go back to the drawing board. As part of the vote, the commission addressed two of the report’s major concerns.

Shannon McCarthy is a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. She says one of the changes addresses existing trails in the area.

“One was to make sure that the trail system, the winter tail system, is hooked up and continuous…a loop as it exists today,” she said.

The other amendment adds a buffer between the sidewalk and the road.

Opponents of the Northern Access Project rally outside of the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN - Anchorage)
Opponents of the Northern Access Project rally outside of the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

It’s unclear how the changes will impact the project’s budget, which is limited to $20 million.

Early in the meeting commission members were working with an older bridge design, that didn’t include a second pedestrian overpass on the southern end of the road.

Chris Schutte, the director of economic and community development for the Municipality of Anchorage, explains what happened.

“The applicant said, ‘well, since we submitted it, we’ve kept designing and the bridge has been added back in,’” Schutte said. “And I think that was an area where there was some miscommunication, or perhaps misunderstanding, because the planning and zoning commission, as well as staff, were operating off of a design submission that did not include that.”

Though this design was approved with caveats, the process isn’t over. From here, it still needs approval from the Urban Design Commission, then the Anchorage Assembly. After that comes the permitting process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Schutte says Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz intends to delve further into the project.

“The larger issue of whether or not this road should be built is still something that the mayor would like a chance to work through,” Schutte said.

And a big part of that process will be gathering people on both sides of the issue to see if a reasonable compromise can be reached.

So far, the two sides have been been widely divided.

Surrounding community councils and many area residents have been long-opposed to the project.

Among the road’s opponents is Alice Knapp, a 28-year resident of the area.

“When they had the preliminary plans for this road, they said that they would provide bike trail access and bike lanes, and now they can’t afford that, and so now they’ve cut it back to a streamlined road, and it doesn’t have those amenities,” Knapp said. “And if you’re not gonna do it right, let’s not do it until we can do it right – if that is necessary.”

On the other side, advocates for the road say it’s necessary.

Mary K. Hughes is a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. She says improved access to the U-Med District is vital, largely because of the development and growth the area has seen.

“It has burgeoned with productivity. Lots of square footage added. Lots of employees, patients, students,” Hughes said. “And, I mean, there’s about a quarter, probably, of the working population in addition to the people who are served that go in and out of the U-Med district and it needs to be treated accordingly.”

The road plans to use University lands as a right-of-way to connect Elmore Road and Bragaw Street.

If all approvals and permits are awarded, construction on the project could begin as soon as next spring.