Proposed zoning change in Kenai offers opportunity

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2005

The proposal to create a new "limited commercial zone" within the city of Kenai deserves serious consideration.

Before those who live adjacent to the proposed new zone decide there goes the neighborhood, they need to at least be open to the possibility that such a change — if done properly — could add value to the neighborhood, not destroy it.

As written the proposal before the Kenai City Council on Wednesday "would allow low to medium volume business, mixed residential and other compatible uses that would complement and not materially detract from the uses allowed in adjacent zoning districts."

The zone is designed to create a transitional area between existing commercial and residential areas.

Such a zone creates lots of possibilities — again, if done correctly.

Consider what makes a vibrant town center: a mix of residential, business, commercial and recreational opportunities. Towns where residents have the option of walking from their home to work or to shopping or to an evening of entertainment create a sense of community in a way that those communities where driving is a must and every use is separated from every other use do not. In fact, some believe that the ability to walk in and through a community helps people bond with the place they call home. Walkers develop a sense of belonging and ownership in a community in ways that people who only drive from one part of town to the next rarely have.

With a few exceptions, Kenai is mostly a driving required community. It could enhance its livability if it enhanced its walkability. (A word about walkability: It does not mean sidewalks alone. In fact, sidewalks that run right along the curbs of busy streets aren't much better than just a wide space off the road. They don't really help people connect to the community.)

A new zoning district that combines mixed, but compatible, uses in a limited area offers the possibility of improving the city's livability, walkability and, consequently, its economic vitality.

It's no secret Kenai has an identity crisis of sorts. Where, for example, is its town center?

By focusing on creating a compact, lively, walkable town center, it's very possible — in fact, very likely — the development city officials so desire would follow.

Look at some of these characteristics of walkable communities from the nonprofit corporation by the same name and it's easy to see why: intact town centers; mixed-income residences within the town center's many uses; public spaces; the basic amenities to make walking feasible and enjoyable to all; traffic that moves at safe, courteous speeds; and decisions that show community leaders put people above cars.

In walkable communities, most homes are within a quarter of a mile walking distance to most services. These communities don't force most people to drive to the places where they work. In addition, these communities "are tearing down old, non-historic dwellings, shopping plazas and such and converting them to compact, mixed-use, mixed-income properties," according to Walkable Communities Inc., which was established in 1996 to help communities become more livable by making them more walkable.

That last idea should provide plenty of inspiration to Kenai officials and residents, because there are numerous opportunities to do just that within the city's limits.

The "limited commercial zone" to be discussed by the Kenai council on Wednesday should be a starting point for a much broader discussion about what kind of community residents want. Those who live next to the proposed "limited commercial zone" need to have the primary say in what that zone looks like. If and when the zone is approved, residents also need to be involved in approving what businesses go there and what those businesses look like. It could provide the model on how to mix residential and business uses in other parts of town.

Meanwhile, the city needs to consider if economic development comes before livability or if more should be invested in making Kenai the most livable city possible in order to attract business and industry here.

Our take is livability should be the priority — which in turn would attract business and industry.

While every resident might have a different vision of livability, these things come to mind: quality, affordable housing for families of all ages and incomes; job opportunities for those just starting in their careers; a community where kids can safely walk and ride their bikes to school; a place where senior citizens can find the services they need and get to them easily; a place where the arts and businesses thrive and equally feel at home.

Oh, and a place where you don't have to leave the city limits to buy underwear. Or shoes. Or a pair of slacks. Or school clothes. Or ...

Livability. Walkability. Economic development. The proposed "limited commercial zone" opens debate on how to create all those things within the city of Kenai.

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