I’m sorry, I fail to see what is uniquely Alaskan about this plan.
River front walkways? Roundabouts? Parking lots? Convention centers with hotels? A skate park that will only be useful for 3 to 4 months a year? Does any of this sound uniquely Alaskan? Because it seems to me to be much like many downtown’s that I’ve been to across America (and Europe). It seems to me to be about as unique as that cluster of box stores off of the Johansen.
If I’ve missed something that could be construed as uniquely Alaskan, feel free to let me know.
Wow! Exciting stuff! Exciting, because I don’t have a pat answer, because the question makes me squirm a little. It’s true that not everything about Vision Fairbanks is uniquely Alaskan, and that many aspects of the plan look similar to cities elsewhere in the States and in Europe. How much do we want to turn Fairbanks into somewhere else?
Here’s the best I can do for now at an answer:
First, I should say that my interest in Vision Fairbanks may be different from the interest of the Downtown Association. They seem to be interested in downtown’s economic strength, while I’m more concerned with whether it encourages civic life and is socially just. The economic strength is key to the social aspects, though, because very few people will visit it if it lacks really good retail. I point out my perspective just so it’s clear that I don’t have the “official” answer.
So, how is the plan uniquely Alaskan?
Well, it doesn’t have to be.
My chief concern is to have a downtown that works — brings in and mixes people from all over the borough; provides a close mix of retail, commercial, civic, recreational, and residential uses; offers people an urban environment that is a pleasure to spend time in; is served by public transit; and acts as a one-stop retail/civic/recreational destination for those who can’t or don’t want to spend lots of time driving or lots of money on car ownership.
The principles of good city centers listed by planning consultants Crandall Arambula in the first public meeting are not things they just cooked up after looking at their home town of Portland, Oregon. They are principles I’ve seen repeated time and again in books on urban architecture and civic engagement. (You can download their PDFs on The Recipe for Saving Downtowns and Great Public Spaces among others from the first workshop.) They form something like a recipe — maybe “framework” is a better word — for creating city centers and neighborhoods that are profitable, safe, just, and lively.
While I want Fairbanks to look and act like Fairbanks and not some other town, I have no problem with standing on the shoulders of giants — that is, using ideas that have been tested by dozens, even hundreds, of generations. The use of principles that have been shown to work does not make us less unique; it makes us smarter for not trying to re-invent the wheel. To ask how Vision Fairbanks is uniquely Alaskan is a little like asking how light bulbs are uniquely Alaskan: they aren’t, but they still work, and there’s no need for us to go through a phase of burning kerosene and whale-oil lanterns before deciding to use them.
So Vision Fairbanks is a framework for building a downtown that works, not a snapshot of what our downtown ought to look like. We’ll still have immense latitude in how to interpret that framework. How high will buildings be built? Will they be made of planks, logs, concrete, or bricks and mortar? What trees and bushes should decorate downtown? What sculptures and memorials will be located there, and what will they look like? What are good Fairbanks colors to paint with?
But to my mind, the stuff that’s really going to make downtown unique isn’t what gets decided in the design standards. It’s the particular mix of establishments we’ll have there. We’ll probably have one or more heavy-duty outdoor outfitters (Big Ray’s will surely stay), skiing and snowshoeing supplies, liquor stores, hunting and trapping stores, second-hand stores, bars, and hardware stores (perhaps Samson’s could get a place of honor). Our peculiar retail and commercial demands, along with the unique decoration that each of our needed businesses will choose, are what will really make our downtown interesting.
Whether downtown will get its character from design standards or from its retail and commercial environment, it’s really time to ask: What sort of character do we want downtown to have? And what sorts of building or business are going to make it that way?
City planning consultants can take us only so far. The burden of making downtown uniquely ours is now up to us.