Ordinance 2014-79 was unanimously approved by the ten assembly members present. (Bill Starr was absent.) The ordinance makes the Ship Creek Framework Plan, as amended by the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission, an official supplement to the 1991 Ship Creek Waterfront/Land Use Plan already a part of Anchorage 2020.
The Framework Plan was drafted by the design and architecture firm KlingStubbins, based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, at a cost of $600,000. This money was paid out of a $4 million state grant to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
The PZC rejected the original iteration of the Framework in 2013. Reasons for the recommendation of denial to the assembly included the lack of cost estimates and suspicion that the project would flounder following the departure of Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration. “The proposed Ship Creek Development Plan,” the PZC wrote, referring to the document’s original title, “lacks sufficient analysis and detail in order to meet the standard for adoption as an element of the Comprehensive Plan.”
At its April 7, 2014, meeting, members of the PZC unanimously recommended approval of the revised and retitled Framework Plan. However, a subsequent resolution, to which it attached the Framework amendments adopted by the assembly, expressed reservations about the plan.
Saving the plan from further controversy, and quite possibly from opposition in the assembly, was the intent not to use it as a replacement or amendment to the 1991 Ship Creek Waterfront/Land Use Plan.
The Framework notes that in a city where residential and business land is scarce, Ship Creek is underutilized. KlingStubbins suggests several reasons for this, one being topography. The bluffs around Ship Creek create a natural barrier, separating Ship Creek from downtown to the south and Government Hill to the north. The steep grade in many spots has discouraged the extension of roads into Ship Creek, limiting vehicle access.
Another factor hindering development of Ship Creek has been land ownership. The Alaska Railroad owns nearly all of the land around Ship Creek, and state law limits the length of leases the company can sign. The railroad suggested that this created a climate of instability for prospective businesses. The previous legislature sought to address this problem by increasing the maximum length of leases from 55 to 95 years.
Sullivan sees Ship Creek as an answer to the housing shortage in Anchorage. KlingStubbins agrees with him. “Both owner-occupied and rental markets should have a long-term vacancy rate of at least six percent to allow households enough slack in the markets to find suitable housing,” the firm writes in its Framework. In 2010, the vacancy rate in Anchorage was 1.3 percent for owner markets and 3.8 percent for rental markets. By 2020, the firm estimates there could be between 420 and 850 new residential units in Ship Creek, along with up to 300 new hotel rooms. Currently the only hotel in Ship Creek is the Comfort Inn on Ship Creek Avenue.
Before any of those homes or hotels are built, bought, or rented, the interested parties should be aware of the potential seismic consequences. While the original Framework somewhat downplayed the hazards, the hazard level for an earthquake-triggered ground failure in most of the Ship Creek area is considered “high.” Only the land next to the creek or to its north are under “moderate” or “moderate-low” hazard. The vulnerability increases with the proximity to the bluffs.
The PZC asked that the plan be amended to reflect this vulnerability. A study of downtown seismic risk recommended the prohibition of concrete high rise offices and large hotels in areas of high hazard. In areas of very high hazard, large offices, hotels, and apartment complexes are prohibited, as well as hospitals, emergency services, and power plants. (The defunct Knik Arm Power Plant is located in an area designated “moderate-low” hazard.)
It is in some of these very high hazard areas, along the western extremes of 2nd and 3rd Avenues, that KlingStubbins is proposing 300 new residential units dubbed Hillside Village. The firm acknowledges it may not be possible to build this development safely.
Hillside Village would be constructed in the second of three phases envisioned by KlingStubbins. The timeline of the phases in not explicit in the Framework. “Timing implementation to market demands is the most realistic way to ensure redevelopment,” the firm suggests. But based on tables in the document and notes from the PZC, Phase I seems to take from five to ten years, while Phase III is 50 to 100 years away. Phase II fills the amorphous time in between.
Phase I-A envisions the extension of F Street as a pedestrian bridge that would connect the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to the Ship Creek Trail. The trail intersection would be in the new Ship Creek Square, with a hotel on the creek bank just to the west of the F Street bridge and 150 to 200 apartments just to the east. A hall would be built to accommodate the downtown market, as would 100,000 square feet of office space.
Connecting the Coastal and Ship Creek Trails is settled urban planning, the PZC believes. An Anchorage Bicycle Plan was passed in 2010 that would construct a .6-mile segment along the coast at a cost of $1.7 million. While the PZC notes the F Street bridge would be approximately the same length as the existing trail connection plan, the cost would be significantly higher. The PZC asked that the Framework be amended to include the Bicycle Plan trail connection.
Another part of Phase I-A is the realignment of Whitney Road north of the Knik Arm Power Plant. Located between the Port of Anchorage and the light industry sector of East Ship Creek, Whitney Road gets heavy truck traffic. It is also used as creek access for fishermen who park their cars along the road though it has no shoulder. Moving the road north would allow safer truck traffic, as well as easier access to the creek and the construction of fishing platforms.
Residents of Government Hill provided public comment recommending the demolition of the power plant and its adjacent dam. Phase I-A instead calls for the rehabilitation of the power plant with $75 million in private money.
Phase I-B anticipates the construction of a creekside outdoor outfitter to the west of the A/C Street Couplet bridge. Phase I-C would see 250 to 350 more residential units east of the Comfort Inn. These would be in four to six story buildings, based on artists’ renderings.
Phase I-D is more controversial. The PZC recommended it be deleted entirely from the original document. It includes adding additional fill to the existing boat launch at the mouth of the creek to create a freshwater marsh with boardwalks a la Potter Marsh. In the Framework vision, the Coastal Trail would be routed around the marsh to connect to the Ship Creek Trail, which the PZC says would create additional costs. Public hearings would be necessary to see if such a plan is desirable, said the PZC. A new dock for day cruises would also be constructed.
Anticipating commuter rail traffic from the Mat-Su Valley and to the Ted Stevens International Airport, Phase II would see the construction of a transportation center just east of the historic railroad depot. The new transit center would link rail and bus traffic. There would be a D/E Street pedestrian bridge, as well as an A/C Couplet pedestrian bridge to make foot and bike traffic safer. Phase II would also see the construction of the aforementioned Hillside Village and an amphitheater.
The key to Phase III, which the PZC calls “speculative,” is over 70 acres of fill from the existing boat launch south to Elderberry Park and the north end of the Bootleggers Cove neighborhood. On top of this fill, the Framework calls for a grid of businesses, residences, and a cruise ship terminal. Fourth Avenue would be extended to access the new land. On the other end of the study area, a new Ingra-Gambell bridge would feed Loop Road on Government Hill.
While KlingStubbins defends the use of fill as common in waterfront projects, several citizens and the Rabbit Creek Community Council expressed opposition to it. The PZC said that it raises “substantial concerns due to the seismic instability and severe tidal fluctuations” of Knik Arm. The Corps of Engineers would need to be involved to examine the possible environmental impact of filling the mudflats.
Ownership is also a question. While the Alaska Railroad owns the boat launch and the mudflats just to its south, the southern half of the Framework’s proposed fill area is of unknown ownership.
Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn described similar proposals as “hope, quantified,” but the lack of quantification has contributed to the Framework’s “speculative” nature. It does not suggest how much of the plan’s cost will be borne by the private sector and how much by the public. However, the Framework calls for the municipality to pay for basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer, and says these risks will be necessary to lure private investment.
An estimate of anticipated costs of the ordinance passed by the assembly assumed no costs to the municipality through Fiscal Year 2018. Sullivan says that he plans to ask the state to fund the relocation of Whitney Road, in addition to the $4 million the state has already paid that went toward the plan and trail improvements.