Proposed changes to Anchorage’s Town Square Park move forward

Anchorage’s Town Square Park may be due for a $5.4 million redesign soon.

A city proposal likely to be heard before the Planning and Zoning Commission in the fall aims to modify the downtown park’s physical design, programming and administration.

Changes may include improving lighting and adding more open lawn space, a covered stage, a play area and a space for food trucks or a market with seating.

A visual representation of the Parks and Recreation Department's "preferred concept" for Town Square Park. (Courtesy of Stephen Rafuse, Municipality of Anchorage, Parks and Recreation)
A visual representation of the Parks and Recreation Department’s “preferred concept” for Town Square Park. (Courtesy of Stephen Rafuse, Municipality of Anchorage, Parks and Recreation)

Senior Park Planner Stephen Rafuse says the proposed changes aim to get more people using the park year-round, make it feel safer and more iconic and develop a sustainable long-term plan for funding needed upkeep — among other goals.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in revitalizing downtown, and I think this park, as the centerpiece of downtown, really provides a great opportunity to do that,” Rafuse said. “This is a nice park, and I think it’s only going to get better.”

Rafuse said the proposal came about through a two-year input process from local business owners and service providers, online surveys aimed beyond the downtown area and some in-person surveying of park users.  

Rafuse says participants were asked, “ ‘What do you like about the park? What issues do you want to see addressed? And what kinds of things would encourage you to visit the park more?’”

Many cited persisting safety concerns.

Rafuse says the plan seeks to address that perception through design, management and programming changes: reducing potential hiding spots, ensuring the park is properly maintained and reducing red tape to encourage more events at the park.

A subset of the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department  plants flowers at the Town Square Park on a recent weekday afternoon.
A subset of the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department plants flowers at the Town Square Park on a recent weekday afternoon.

In a meeting at the Spenard Recreation Center last week, Rafuse presented the proposed master plan to the Parks and Recreation Commission and about a dozen attendees.

While some attendees voiced support for the proposal during public comment, others, including a few Alaska Center for the Performing Arts patrons, expressed concern at the lack of a safe and accessible drop-off zone by the Center, and wanted the issue addressed in the proposed park changes.  In a submission to the commission prior to the meeting, Center leadership suggested the incorporation of a drop-off lane that would run through the west side of the park alongside the Center.

Nina Bonito Romine, co-owner of Kobuk Coffee Co. downtown, said she’s especially excited at the prospect of bringing an inter-generational component to the park through the proposed play area. Bonito Romine is among the business owners involved with the development of the plan from the process’s onset.

Outside the meeting, on a weekday afternoon at the Town Square Park, when asked about proposed changes, one Anchorage resident playing piano with her grandson expressed concern the changes may negatively impact individuals experiencing homelessness who use the public space in the daytime — when many of the city’s shelters close due to funding limitations according to Jasmine Khan, the Executive Director of the Coalition to End Homelessness.

In a phone interview last week, Khan said that she was learning about the proposed changes for the first time but that she did not find them particularly alarming.

In response to these concerns, Rafuse said, “I think the idea really behind the whole Master plan is just bringing more positive use into the park, and so even if you are here and maybe someone in the park just makes you feel uncomfortable, there’s eyes in the park, you know there’s activity, so everybody can share that space and feel comfortable in it.”

“Right now, if you are downtown, and you are occupying an outdoor space as a person experiencing homelessness, the downtown partnership ambassadors will ask you to move on,” Khan said. “They’re really focusing on trying to do that in a trauma informed way, trying to do that with compassion and dignity,” she added, “but we do indeed ask people to leave downtown already.”

Park planner Stephen Rafuse points to a seasonal round inspired by a traditional Athabascan seasonal round that’s a part of the proposed design for the park. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The proposed plan does not yet have a set design for a public restroom at the park, instead offering a few options modeled after other cities’ public spaces. Rafuse says that’s partly due to the fact that the city charter bans any sort of permanent structure from being built in the square. Any final design for a restroom would have to contend with that.

If voted forward, Rafuse says the next step would be moving the Town Square Park master plan to the design and development phase, starting to fund-raise and continuing to work with stakeholders like downtown businesses to move toward implementation.

The plan is due for a hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission next, likely in September.