Connecting state and local government leaders
How a planned community hub and garden is envisioned to help strengthen one of the nation’s most diverse neighborhoods.
This is first in a series of stories looking at this year’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership 2017 Fellowship cities—Anchorage, Grand Rapids, San José and Washington, D.C. On May 2, Route Fifty, as part of a five-city Roadshow series of events, will be hosting a special Rose Center Mayors’ Forum from the Urban Land Institute’s Spring Meeting in Seattle. | REGISTER
ANCHORAGE — There’s a two-acre vacant site off Mountain View Drive, sitting between a gas station and a small strip mall with a sports bar. It’s about a 10-minute drive from downtown and not too far from an entrance to Elmendorf Air Force Base.
A trailer park sits across the four-lane road, which used to be the main way in and out of Anchorage from the north before the nearby Glenn Highway bypassed the neighborhood.
This empty field off Mountain View Drive may not necessarily look like much driving through, but this particular location, owned by the Anchorage Community Land Trust, is an important neighborhood asset and something that city hall leaders and other community stakeholders are interested in enhancing and making more accessible.
The site—located in one of the nation’s most diverse census tracts that also has high levels of unemployment and residents living below the poverty line—is already used as the Mountain View neighborhood’s farmers market. The market launched last year and features not just fresh produce grown in the area but also community vendors and food trucks.
But the site could be better leveraged to spur additional improvements in the neighborhood and enhance community resiliency in the process.
That’s what a group of land-use and planning experts with the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership have been focusing on in their work in Anchorage, one of four cities the non-profit organization—co-managed by the National League of Cities and Urban Land Institute—is working with in 2017.
Mountain View is one of two areas in Anchorage that’s being examined as part of the municipal government’s work with the Rose Center. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, San José, California, and Washington, D.C., are the three other local governments involved in the program this year.)
“You’re getting exposed to a network of people you wouldn’t have had in your city,” Christopher Schutte, the Anchorage municipal government's director of economic and community development, said in a recent interview with Route Fifty at City Hall. While each city’s land-use challenge and areas of focus are different, resiliency and creating stronger communities are overarching themes.
The concept of urban “resiliency” can mean different things in different places. In Alaska’s largest city, the idea of resiliency has special importance given the state’s geographic isolation and difficult living conditions.
This includes something that’s seemingly simple as access to food. Anchorage is always one natural disaster away from having to deal with a major disruption in its food supply.
Community gardens and backyard greenhouses are not unusual features in the city’s neighborhoods and are one way locals bolster their food security. “Alaska Grown” isn’t just a source of local pride, it’s a reminder of the necessity to cultivate local food sources when when you live in a place that regularly experiences major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, in addition to often cold and bitter winters.
Another non-profit group, the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Cities of Service, has been working separately on related food resiliency issues in the Mountain View neighborhood, building a community greenhouse at a nearby elementary school.
The Rose Center’s work with Anchorage carries that resiliency theme forward.
Thus far, the planning discussion in Mountain View have focused on how “beef up that neighborhood connection,” as Schutte described it, between “a community hub and garden” on the two-acre lot and adjacent neighborhood assets that are within walking distance—those include a new health clinic, grocery store, boys and girls club, middle school and library.
Mountain View, in addition to being one of the nation’s most diverse census tracts, is home to the Anchorage’s highest unemployment. It also has a higher percentage of residents who are reliant on the local bus system, the People Mover, than other parts of the municipality. A citywide bus system realignment coming this fall will increase the frequency of service in the neighborhood.
Schutte said that what’s envisioned at the site—enhancing the site around a community garden—involves redoing the streetscaping along Mountain View Drive, improving sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, and extending a side street through the site to better connect the neighborhood street grid.
New duplex and triplex housing developments have popped up along adjacent streets and the work to boost neighborhood connectivity and enhance the 2-acre site lays the foundation for additional investments in housing. Community stakeholders, like the Cook Inlet Regional Housing Authority, a major player in local real estate development in the Anchorage region, has been one of the many stakeholders involved in the community engagement process.
A short drive from Mountain View is Muldoon, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Anchorage’s urban area that’s also a focus for the Rose Center’s work in Alaska’s largest city.
Schutte said that the Muldoon area has already been a success story for the city. New multi-family housing units have popped up along the fringes of some more suburban style Big Box retailers, like Walmart and Fred Meyer.
In Muldoon, the Rose Center has been working with Anchorage to better leverage greenbelts as neighborhood assets—including providing recreational connections along Chester Creek to the mountainous open space that flanks Anchorage to the east.
Like Mountain View, Muldoon will see increased frequency in bus service, making the neighborhood a transfer point and commercial anchor on the east end of Anchorage’s urban core.
One way to define resiliency is based on the physical connections that can strengthen it. The work underway in Anchorage helps underscore the importance of focusing on all possible connections in the planning process.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.