The reasons to make downtown revitalization a community priority start with economic development and end with a better life for all of us in the Interior.
What you want
In developing the Vision Fairbanks Downtown Plan, Fairbanksans chose their top five attributes for our downtown: more retail catering to locals; make it clean and safe; create parks and trails; improve parking access and supply; improve bike/pedestrian circulation. It’s not a visionary list. It’s actually pretty ordinary.
What put the “vision” in Vision Fairbanks are the steps it takes to earn these ordinary outcomes. The Vision Fairbanks implementation strategy is no weakling list of minor tweaks for marginal and ephemeral gain. It is a bold list of tried-and-true “structural changes” to till the ground for economic development and a revitalized downtown.
How to revitalize?
The basic idea is to make the downtown good for people. Make it good for people and — we can argue chicken and egg all day long — people come and businesses follow, or businesses come and people follow to the downtown made good for people (see list of 5 above). Market forces and the private sector will drive revitalization — which is also to say the public sector has a unique role to play, especially in the early stages with those elements solely the domain of government. Like roads.
The first structural change is to revise traffic circulation and improve downtown infrastructure. Without the right infrastructure, a gold mine isn’t viable. Downtown needs the right infrastructure, too. Two-way traffic, wider sidewalks, and on-street parking ease commerce by increasing convenient parking, making pedestrians feel safer behind a buffer of parked cars on a wider sidewalk that retailers will be glad to have fronting their business!
The expectation has been to revise Cushman and Barnette streets to two-way traffic. However, the local road planning authority decided to span the Chena River with one-way bridges on these streets. City engineers, whose job it is to build two-way traffic into the one-way bridges, are seeking a second opinion from consultants about whether it will work. The fate of the state money devoted to investing in downtown infrastructure will be influenced by the City Council and determined by the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System later this year. We Fairbanksans must not miss a chance to improve downtown’s infrastructure.
The second step in making the downtown good for people is to create ground rules that protect the investment environment. A new zone type, the City Center District, will encourage “a compact, pedestrian-oriented town center consisting of a high-intensity employment center, vibrant ... mixed use areas ... a broad range of housing types for an array of housing needs; an ... attractive and memorable destination for visitors and residents; and ... high-quality urban design.” The City Center District will go to the Planning Commission before year end.
That’s great, you say, but downtown needs more than good infrastructure and ground rules. What about the problems of high construction costs, parking, and chronic inebriates? If the known, persistent problems haven’t been solved yet, structural changes — bold new approaches — can open new possibilities. The important thing is that Fairbanks has a policy framework for downtown to accommodate the many complementary initiatives it will take to revitalize downtown.
Several years ago, Fairbanksans argued whether or not we needed to invest in our downtown. Now we’re arguing over which way is best and what should come first — so we’re getting somewhere! The greatest challenges today are challenges of attitude and errors of scale. The attitude says that downtown is an indistinct part of the city with needs identical to the rest of the city — and fails to see downtown’s potential to transform our community and our region. The error of scale mistakes a tweak for a game-changer, mistakes fresh trim paint for a traffic revision, mistakes the level of effort required to achieve decisive, lasting improvement downtown.
What is the leading downtown north of the Alaska Range? Does it have attributes that a corporation would see as a plus for locating their headquarters? Does it have the attributes that a talented, prosperous work force finds desirable? Are your children or grandchildren that work force? Are you proud of your downtown?
Downtown is already Fairbanks’ “living room,” a seat of many signature events, site of our genuine pioneer history and showroom of our community character. Downtown can be even better. Great downtowns don’t just happen. But if we work in unison, the sum of a rather ordinary list can build a downtown that is truly extraordinary.
David van den Berg is the executive director of the Downtown Association of Fairbanks, an association of downtown professionals and retailers that partners with the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough in economic development downtown.