Ah, the Dumpster. It is one of the more distinctive features of our city's lowest-common-denominator architectural style. Especially sitting right in front of a building with its rusty Dumpster maw wide open. Add a couple of ravens disemboweling trash bags. Maybe a sodden mattress. Nothing says, "Hello, and welcome to my home or place of business," like a container full of trash. It's so iconic here that an artist in Spenard is making Dumpster T-shirts.
A Dumpster is a perfectly useful and convenient item. But does it need to be right there, front and center? No, it does not. City blocks in Spenard, Russian Jack, Fairview, Mountain View and East Anchorage don't have to be lined with trash receptacles. It's a matter of city code.
And the code, as it applies to the city's 8,000 Dumpsters, is poised to change. Or at least it was. The Assembly provisionally approved new land use rules years ago that would get rid of front-and-center Dumpsters. The rules would require trash bins be moved to the side or rear of buildings if possible, and be at least partially screened from view. If they couldn't be moved, they would have to be enclosed. Multifamily homes smaller than four-plexes would have to use cans, except in special cases. The changes would phase in over time.
People who couldn't follow the new rules could apply for variances. Getting a Dumpster variance would be easier than getting other types of variances and would not require a public hearing. The idea, Tom Davis in the city planning department told me, was to make variances available to people whose lots weren't designed to hide their trash. Anchorage has a good number of those lots.
"We're trying to be practical," Davis said.
The Dumpster requirements would also apply to all new developments.
It took 10 years to hash out the new Dumpster rules, along with a mammoth list of other changes to the city's land use code, called Title 21. Garbage companies weighed in and so did business owners and residents. The Dumpster code was approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission and, provisionally, by the Assembly.
After all that, developers complained that the Title 21 changes were too much. Mayor Dan Sullivan hired Dan Coffey, a former Assembly member, to revise the revisions. Sullivan also appointed a new class of Planning and Zoning commissioners, tilting the balance of the body toward development interests.
Today's commissioners, according to resumes on file at the muni: Ray Hickel, who owns a home-building company; Stacey Dean, who owns a residential remodeling company; James Fergusson, who owns a construction company; Terry Parks, whose interests are in business and real estate; Connie Yoshimura, a real estate developer; J. Dana Pruhs, who owns an airport and utility construction company, a sand and gravel business and several aviation-related businesses; Peter Mulcahy, director of the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska; Tyler Robinson, a city planner; and Bruce Phelps, also a planner.
The new commission set about considering Coffey's suggestions and reversing parts of the code it saw as too restrictive. The Sullivan administration supported new restrictions on Dumpsters, suggesting only that building owners have more time to comply, according to Davis in the city's planning department. But the commissioners eliminated every requirement to clean up Dumpster-lined streets.
How do you argue in favor of keeping old Dumpsters around indefinitely? I called Yoshimura, who chairs the commission. Vice Chair Terry Parks returned the call. He said the regulations weren't practical. He has a Dumpster on his 10-acre lot, for example. Under the code change, he'd have to use trash cans and that wouldn't do. (Turns out this isn't actually correct.) He produces a lot of trash with his woodworking hobby.
Couldn't people like him get a variance if they wanted to keep their Dumpster? Variances were too expensive and complicated, he said. Could there be some special provision for people like him? A smaller change, rather than scrapping the whole thing?
"When you start writing exceptions, then where do you stop?"
I asked about the requirement to move Dumpsters away from the street and screen them. He asked me if I knew that a screen could cost as much as $3,500.
A building owner could have at least five years to build one. The owner of a six-plex, for example, could raise the rent in each unit $9.72 a month per unit for five years and cover it, I said. Screening the trash would improve the property. And be a tax write-off.
There were too many possible problems, Parks said. Small lots. Snags for trash trucks trying to maneuver. And snow. Snow messes everything up.
But wouldn't it make the city look better? I asked. There was silence on the line.
"Do I think it would improve the look of the city? I think it would improve it but to what cost and what end?" he said.
A valid question, which the Planning and Zoning Commission, Assembly and our mayor considered already. All of them thought it was worth it to do something to deal with prominent Dumpsters.
When I drive through a particularly unattractive part of our city -- maybe the houses are packed in and of poor quality, or there are no sidewalks, or there are Dumpsters everywhere -- I think about how it ended up that way.
The answer is that somebody saw requiring something better as too restrictive or too expensive. The irony: When we cut corners up front to save somebody money, we often pay for it afterward. Front-yard Dumpsters are a perfect example. Why did we allow them in the first place? Because it was the cheapest option.
The upside to keeping the Dumpsters around, I suppose, is that we can make more garbage-pride T-shirts. I'm thinking something with ravens eating pizza crusts that says, "Anchorage, Alaska: Dumpsters Forever."