The Alaska city of Unalaska, an island community of just under 5,000 residents in the heart of the Pacific/Bering Sea fisheries, is a continent away and unquestionably a much different environment from metropolitan Chicago. But the opportunity to work as a city planner and help shape Unalaska’s future led Anthony Grande, MUPP, AICP, a former graduate research assistant at the Urban Transportation Center, west upon graduation from UIC in 2013 with a master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy. In December of 2015, Mr. Grande was appointed Director of Planning for the City, which has transportation and planning challenges much different from those found in metropolitan Chicago.
In the conversation that follows, Mr. Grande shares thoughts on his work, planning and development in Unalaska and how his research work at the UTC helped shape his career.
Please describe your responsibilities with the city of Unalaska?
I am the Director of Planning, overseeing the Planning Department for the City of Unalaska. Besides me, there is one professional planner, and one administrative assistant in the department. The department is responsible for future planning of the development of the community and the development review process in the City. We create planning documents, related to the Comprehensive Plan, and development codes for implementation. We manage two commissions: the Planning Commission/Platting Board, which is a decision-making body, and the Historic Preservation Commission, which is an advisory body. As the director, I am responsible for making sure that all of the department’s functions and responsibilities are occurring in accordance with the needs of the City Council, passed down through the City Manager. I interact daily with the City Manager and other department heads to ensure that the needs of the City overall are being met by the activities of the Planning Department. I am also personally responsible for managing tideland leases for the City and for creating the 5-year capital improvements plan. I also provide written and verbal reports to the City Council on all matters related to planning.
What was your position and responsibilities before being promoted to Director of Planning?
Before being promoted to Director, I was the other professional planner in the Planning Department. The position is Associate Planner. In this position, I did much of the work to make the department function as it is described above, except focusing on certain tasks for the department as assigned by the Director. Much of what I did related to development review and managing the Planning Commission. I also was the project manager for the Unalaska Land Use Plan: 2015.
What are the biggest transportation/urban planning challenges the city faces in the next five years?
Transportation challenges are different on an isolated island than they are in a large metropolitan area. Our primary challenge is identified in the Comprehensive Plan: 2020 as improving the quality of the airline service to the community. There is also the issue of retaining high quality ferry service to the community. Unfortunately, there is very little we can do about this from a local standpoint, other than lobbying the state government to improve service levels. The Planning Department has not directly tackled these issues. In terms of transportation locally, we rely almost exclusively on vehicles for transportation, and do not experience any major issues. Our capital improvements plan usually identifies the roads that need paving on a periodic basis, but the majority of our roadways are unpaved and are maintained by the roads crew on a day-to-day basis. We have not built any new roads or expanded the capacity of any existing roads in a very long time, and there are no plans to do so in the future. There are plans to expand our sidewalks and trails network. The Planning Department will play a role in developing the strategic plan for those trails moving forward.
In general, the largest planning challenge in Unalaska is providing adequate housing options at a decent price to local residents. It is identified in the Comprehensive Plan: 2020. We are not a growing community and are unlikely to experience increased demand in the next five years, but meeting the current demand is really the challenge. The Planning Department is continually updating our code to make it easier for property owners to make more land available for housing. We have also completed a project to catalog all existing vacant land in Unalaska. The other piece of that puzzle is finding affordable ways to build housing. We are looking at getting together a housing forum to help developers in the community with additional information about construction options. One of the most compelling trends right now is modular housing. A house can be shipped here in one or two big pieces and requires very little labor on site once it is delivered. The overall cost (including the shipping) appears to be significantly less for a modular shipped from Anchorage, compared to building a house from materials in Unalaska.
How did your experience working as a graduate research assistant at the UTC play a role (if any) in the work you’re doing now?
A large portion of the work I did as a graduate assistant at UTC was focused on GIS. This is still relevant to me today. Local governments have a lot of responsibility for maintaining local spatial datasets. The City of Unalaska has an enormous amount of geospatial data. When I began as the Associate Planner, I was responsible for doing the work of maintaining and updating that data. Now I’m responsible for the overall direction of the GIS program. While I don’t open the ArcGIS program very often anymore, my experience with managing the data makes it easy for me to understand what we are doing with our overall program. Besides GIS, working with the NURail program was insightful for me. Understanding how entities interact to make transportation projects happen has always given me a greater appreciation for the relationship between regulatory agencies and private companies. It was at UTC that I first gained firsthand experience with the connection between administrative rules/procedures and legislative policies. I deal with that relationship consistently in my work as I am responsible for applying what the City Council has put in code, using administrative policies and guidelines within the Planning Department and among various departments.
Are there any correlations between urban planning in a community like Unalaska versus what you learned/studied while a student at UIC?
There are correlations. Of course, we face some unique challenges, but the process we follow is the same as anywhere. In general, local planning is done a certain way, and Unalaska is no different. Almost everything I learned at UIC is directly relevant to my current work.
The economy of Unalaska centers on maritime freight and fishing. What are your responsibilities in helping to grow the economy through better planning?
The maritime freight and fishing industries here are essentially our economic base industries. In some ways, the Planning Department is able to support those industries indirectly by supporting the non-base industries that are essential for the base sectors to function. I mentioned housing previously. Most of this is done through our development review process. Also, one thing I like about working for a municipality is that we have the opportunity to assist the municipal function in multiple ways. I enjoy being involved in the capital budget and planning process. The planning skill of organizing and visualizing multiple projects staggered over multiple years is helpful for the municipality to plan its own improvement projects. Many of these involve improving marine facilities that will enhance the economic vitality of the industries here. By coordinating the GIS program for the City, we also are enhancing the City’s ability to make targeted investments that support maritime industrial development here. Also, through development regulation and the City’s historic preservation program, we are helping to ensure that development happens in a responsible way that preserves and protects the unique character of the community.
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NOTE: If you are a former UTC graduate student researcher and would like to share information on your career in transportation or planning, please contact us via email.