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Juneau's housing density plans may change city's skyline

Taller, more densely-built neighborhoods called for in plan

Posted: July 28, 2012 - 11:07pm

Juneau may evolve a surprisingly taller and more compact look due to recently approved changes to city and borough zoning codes.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly passed Ordinance 2012-24, amending land use zoning districts, without objection on May 14.

CBJ Planning Commission is near the end of an update to Juneau’s Comprehensive Plan. This plan is a guideline for future development and includes provisions for affordable housing.

These changes, meant to increase the availability of affordable housing in Juneau, may also have an affect on the look and feel of neighborhoods, Greg Chaney, CBJ planner said in a recent phone interview.

“People may be surprised,” Chaney said. “Something may go up in their community that they hadn’t anticipated.”

The new code allows for apartments in general commercial and light commercial areas that can be “pretty large,” Chaney said.

However, the new codes and guidelines also mean new opportunity, Chaney said.

The new code smooths the transition from commercial to residential zones and allows for a significant increase in residential density.

In areas designated Light Commercial, residential density increases from 18 to 30 dwelling units per acre (goo.gl/DzoJT). General Commercial lots can house 50 units per acre, up from 18.

Juneau’s downtown core, South Franklin Street and Front Street are Mixed Use areas and zoned for unlimited units with no height limit. Mixed Use 2 is now zoned for multi-family buildings with densities of up to 80 units per acre.

The new code also adds 10 feet to height limits in the light commercial, general commercial and Mixed Use 2 districts. New buildings can reach up to 65 feet in MU2.

General commercial areas are zoned to accommodate most commercial uses; light commercial less intensive uses.

The Willoughby District, which encompasses the Alaska State Museum and the Foodland Center and nearby neighborhoods, is designated Mixed Use 2 with densities of 80 units per acre.

Willoughby developers can also benefit from “significantly reduced parking requirements,” Chaney said. A development’s parking requirements in Willoughby are now 60 percent below less congested areas, he said.

“A large amount of this district is occupied by surfaced parking lots,“ Chaney said.

New apartments and condominiums in the area “won’t have to build a huge parking lot,” Chaney said.

CBJ planners designed this increase in both density and height of Juneau’s residential structures for one major purpose, Chaney said — affordable housing. To encourage affordable housing without creating regulation that requires building below-market-rate houses, condominiums and apartments, he said.

Currently Juneau has a 3.2 percent vacancy rate for rentals and 1.4 percent for homeowner units, well below the national average. This is also below CBJ’s target of 5 percent.

Juneau’s single-family home prices averaged $294,818 in 2011 setting an all time record — condominiums and ‘mother-in-laws’ included.

Housing is considered affordable if renters or owners spend 30 percent or less of their income on housing, Chaney said. This includes utilities.

“There is a surprisingly large percentage who pay over 50 percent,” Chaney said. “If you are paying more that 50 percent, you are in trouble,” Chaney said. “It is tough.”

During presentation of the ordinance to the Planning Commission in March, City Planner, Ben Lyman said Juneau’s zoning code limits at that time were hurting development.

“Right now residential development isn’t happening in our commercial zones because 18 units per acre just doesn’t work financially,” Lyman said. “But at 30 units per acre, something changes. It allows them to build unsubsidized affordable housing in Juneau.

CBJ is shooting for housing in the 30 percent range.

“We are trying had to create opportunities for the private sector to supply that demand,” Chaney said.

Higher density helps lower housing costs, Chaney said. Building new roads, sewer, water and other services are “very expensive” to the city and borough, Chaney said.

Building dense housing near existing services saves money per unit. Locating dense housing near work, groceries and entertainment can cut commutes.

CBJ located its commercial zones near transit corridors, Chaney said. As density increases and need for public transit increases, these zones of growth can benefit from this proximity.

Juneau’s code also allows for flexibility in designing multi-family developments. Instead of a 12-unit apartment complex, developers could build 12 small houses.

“It all depends on the developers desire,” Chaney said.

Homeowners can offset some housing costs with the addition of a ‘mother-in-law’ accessory apartment in neighborhoods where lots are sufficient in size. Builders need a permit, but not a public hearing, Chaney said. These individual apartments are typically around 600 square feet in size and typically don’t need a lot of financing to build, he said.

“If you are going to diverge from what the code allows outright, you need to have a public comment,” Chaney said. “But stay within code and build away.”

Accessory apartments no longer need to be attached to the main home.

What does greater density look like?

Chaney gives as an example the mixed density of residential and office space at the Marine View building in Downtown Juneau. The building is tall and densely populated.

“[Marine View} houses a lot of people,” Chaney said. However, due to its proximity to work and recreation opportunities, “it really doesn’t create the same parking demand” as other multifamily housing, he said.

Wildflower Court, a senior housing facility located near Bartlett Hospital, is the kind of building would be more likely in a general commercial zone with the new zoning codes, Chaney said.

Old Dairy Road is zoned general commercial, Chaney said, as is the Nugget Mall. The area around Fred Meyer is light commercial, he said.

“Areas like that,” Chaney said, “you might see high rise apartments go in there.” Prior density limits would not have allowed such construction.

Attracting more people to live in areas like downtown promotes development attracting more people, Chaney said.

“And we may keep places like [Alaskan & Proud],” Chaney said. If people move out “you’ll get kind of a sterile environment.”

Chaney said that folks who want to keep up with these changes to Juneau’ zoning can follow CBJ’s Planning Commission. The commission is right now updating Juneau’s comprehensive plan, a general guide for future development.

“People should really go,” Chaney said. “[The plan] will help provide the direction for the future growth.”

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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