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By a unanimous 12–0 vote, the Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to repeal parking mandates across Alaska’s most populous city.

The common-sense zoning reform found sponsors across the political spectrum, championed by progressive Daniel Volland and co-sponsored by conservative real estate broker Kevin Cross and by Forrest Dunbar, who just won election to the Alaska state Senate as a Democrat. The two other members of the conservative voting bloc on the Assembly followed suit, voting “aye” alongside the liberal majority. (The Assembly is technically nonpartisan, but the political leanings of members are well known.)

There was little debate that parking mandates, which prescribe a particular minimum number of parking spots for every new building in the city, were an unnecessary barrier to building more homes and businesses. Bill sponsors have argued that Anchorage has too much parking, and builders are already incentivized to have enough parking to meet market needs. Development in Anchorage is already notoriously difficult due to the short construction season and high costs for materials and labor, often making the cost of construction more expensive than the potential property value.

“There is broad consensus that can be found around the issue of wanting to support housing in Anchorage to address the housing shortage,” Volland said in a work session leading up to the vote. “I think that we have an Assembly committed to doing that.”

Land use codes for the municipality have a big impact regionally: with nearly 300,000 residents, the city is home to 40 percent of all Alaskans. Covering just over 1,700 square miles, it’s the fourth-largest city by land area in the United States and larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Cross, who has extensive experience in real estate and served as Chair of the Anchorage Platting Board campaigned on simplifying permitting. He explained last week that no one was going to remove their parking overnight. “This is going to be a gradual process as people take advantage of it,” he said. The flexibility would enable more business opportunities within neighborhoods and revitalize older buildings on space-constrained lots for the select group of property owners who take advantage of it.

“There’s great bipartisan support for these kind of reforms,” said Dunbar. “One of my main motivations for this—and for all of us—is we have an affordable housing in crisis in Anchorage right now. This is a modest but important step towards making both new construction, and crucially the repurposing of existing buildings, more affordable.”

Even conservative Mayor Dave Bronson, who has been at odds with the Assembly on other issues, congratulated them on the ordinance. He wrote, “This change will make more housing projects economically viable,” he wrote Wednesday. “I have stated before, there’s no daylight between myself and the Assembly when it comes to the need for housing.”

The planning department walked so the Assembly could run

Anchorage’s parking reform process began with a proposed ordinance from its city planning department. The ordinance included modest reductions to parking requirements and was limited to certain parts of the city. But the election of newcomers Volland and Cross this last spring opened the door to a larger conversation about how the city could remove barriers to new development.

Volland and his cosponsors approached the planning department with a new idea: get rid of parking mandates entirely. Over the last few months, a working group of transportation advocates, Assembly members, and staff from the development services and planning departments extensively reworked the reform.

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  • The Assembly adopted that substitute version of the initial ordinance which eliminated all parking minimums citywide. The ordinance also increased ratios for disability-accessible parking spaces and included mandates for secure bike parking, which apply to new businesses and some multifamily housing.

    The growing number of cities that have already eliminated parking requirements citywide, even in cold-weather climates that get significant snow like Edmonton and Buffalo, emboldened Assembly members. Downtown Anchorage already doesn’t have parking mandates, but that hasn’t stopped recent multifamily housing builds like Block 96 Flats and Elizabeth Place from including parking voluntarily.

    “Time after time, parking minimums became the difference between something working or not working financially.” -Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors

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    The expanded parking proposal even got support from Girdwood, a ski resort community 40 miles down the Turnagain Arm that lies within Anchorage’s municipal boundary. Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, said parking requirements were identified as a major impediment to development years ago. “Time after time, parking minimums became the difference between something working or not working financially,” he said. Only one new business has been built there in the past decade.

    At first, Edgington was skeptical of wholly eliminating parking requirements, since Girdwood has no public transit service. But after learning about experiences in the ski resort town of Sandpoint, Idaho, he threw his support behind the reform. Prices for single detached homes in Girdwood are 50 percent higher than in the Anchorage Bowl, in part due to onerous parking mandates, and local workers have struggled to find housing they can afford.

    The Anchorage Assembly also approved funding in October for a right-of-way management study, giving more resources to the city planning department to study on-street parking management and snow storage strategies. “That alleviated a lot of the concern we had with removing minimums,” according to Tom Davis, a senior planner for the city who worked on the effort for two years.

    Anna Brawley, an urban planner with consulting firm Agnew::Beck and a key advocate for the reforms, nodded to the work ahead as planners begin to reverse auto-oriented policies that have harmed and separated communities. “Our profession has a lot to answer for historically, not just in this city,” she testified at a work session last week. “Anything that planners can do to help start to undo those things, call attention to them and change them, is good. I’m thankful for my planning colleagues sitting at the table helping with that.” Brawley plans to run for a West Anchorage Assembly seat in April.

    First step to more common-sense land use regulations

    Eliminating parking requirements from the zoning code was described by Volland as the “first chip in the ice” to making Anchorage’s land use code work better for housing development. The planning department plans to come back with more revisions to design standards that include landscaping, sidewalk requirements, and driveway widths. There was a clear appetite for further reforms from both the public and Assembly members.

    “I’ve never seen so much involvement in land use issues in a long time,” Kayli Thompson testified at the hearing. Thompson is a co-founder of Scope Permitting and Engineering, which completes permits for 70 percent of projects within the municipality. “Although this is a big step, I think there are some other steps that need to be addressed.”

    Cross signaled that this reform is just one part of a more comprehensive change to land use regulations for Anchorage. “It’s easier to do it in little bites than fight an avalanche,” he said in response to Thompson and others who brought up related development issues. “If this is encouraging to you, then buckle up.”