Assembly votes for changes to residential construction and design

At its Tuesday meeting, the Anchorage Assembly passed a measure that could change the DNA of housing and neighborhoods across the state’s largest city. The vote came after months of negotiations that have left all sides exasperated, but willing to leave good enough alone.

After 15 years of negotiations connected to Title 21, the city’s building code, just about the only thing everyone agrees on is that it has been a slog.

The ordinance that passed Tuesday, AO-100, is basically a modification to parts of the code having to do with building new housing units. Anchorage’s long-term comprehensive plan is to “grow up, not out”–necessitating well-designed, denser housing options like multi-family buildings and taller apartments, rather than continuous outward sprawl.

But developers have said the code currently on the books made it difficult and prohibitively expensive to build those sorts of units. The complaints prompted a re-examination of the sections having to do with design standards within a class of residential districts. After months of examination by staff at the Planning and Zoning Department, committee reports, and public hearings, Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston–an eight year veteran of the Title 21 process–sees AO-100 as a tolerable mix of perspectives brought to the table.

“It’s been many different eyes looking at this, and this is the compromise that’s come out. There’s things that all of us would like to do differently–but that’s compromise,” Johnston said. “It will hopefully help encourage redevelopment and infill where needed within this community.”

Johnston supported the ordinance, as did Assembly Members Amy Demboski and Ernie Hall, who earlier this summer put forward an ordinance seeking to table residential design standards all together for 18 months. Almost simultaneously, an ordinance reflecting recommendations from the zoning department offered a drastically different approach, tinkering with specific standards but leaving the overall framework in tact. AO-100, prepared by the Berkowitz Administration’s Community Development Department, tried blending the two earlier measures.

The changes give more discretion to the planing director in deciding whether or not design concepts meet the spirit of the code, if not exactly the letter. And many specific construction requirements have been replaced with intent language drawn from urban design policy.

Some see it as creating more latitude in place of rigid construction standards. Others, like Sheila Selkregg, who helped develop Title 21 and the Comprehensive Plan it is supposed to support, think it is another instance of developers’ interests receiving priority in the building process.

“Anchorage has had a development community that has been very independent and doesn’t really want to have rules that limit them,” Selkregg said. “They want a lot of freedom.”

One of the chief concerns from community advocates like Selkregg is that the newly revised code doesn’t have a mechanism for distributing population density in a way that makes sense for neighborhoods. This is the worry when people bring up the possibility of six-story buildings potentially popping up next to single-family homes. Not only would this create a lot of unanticipated shade for neighbors, but those oversights in the code (which Selkregg compared to the DNA of a neighborhood) can alter the whole make up of a community if executed poorly.

Like many others, though, she sees the real fault as lying with Title 21 itself, a code that has become more unwieldy than useful.

“I do think it’s a kind of a sausage,” Selkregg laughed.

The AO-100 was approved 8 to 1, with only Assembly Member Patrick Flynn voting against it.

The new rules go into effect on January 1st.