The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and DeHart’s Auke Bay Store have worked out a “compromise” that would see a roundabout put in without building a large retaining wall between the convenience store and the road, representatives from both said last week.
The owners of DeHart’s, along with some members of the Auke Bay community, had expressed concerns over previous plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Back Loop Road and Glacier Highway, near the University of Alaska Southeast campus.
“When they originally came to us, they were wanting to put up a big huge retaining wall right next to the store and … cut off our entrances to the parking lot,” said Dan Hickok, co-owner of DeHart’s, on Friday. “And we were against that.”
Earlier this year, an ad hoc group called Friends of Auke Bay mobilized to stop DOT&PF’s planned roundabout, concerned about its potential effects on DeHart’s business. It gathered almost 1,200 signatures for a petition against the plans after the state expressed interest in purchasing the DeHart’s property for demolition.
“I asked Dan if they were willing sellers,” said Karla Hart, who organized the Friends of Auke Bay group. “He said, ‘No, but look at what they’re going to do. What choice to do we have?’ And at that point, I said, ‘Well, I think we have some choice.’”
“They were going to take the convenience out of the whole store,” Hickok said. “You know, I couldn’t get boats and trailers turned around in here to get fuel, the parking lot was going to be smaller, they were going to take away all the easement right there, and they were basically going to put DeHart’s under the ground.”
But this summer, and as recently as Tuesday, Hickok said, the DOT&PF and DeHart’s have been working to find a solution that will have less of an impact on the convenience store’s business.
“The roundabout’s going to move uphill more toward the university and away from DeHart’s,” said Jeremy Woodrow, assistant chief communications officer for the department, on Thursday.
Hart said she believes her petition made the key difference.
“I think that it’s pretty unusual for a development project in Juneau … to get that much community attention and input,” Hart said. “And so my understanding is that as a result of those signatures, DOT looked at the roundabout again and made some changes so they didn’t have to destroy DeHart’s.”
Hickok said that DeHart’s will have more space to work with as a result of the changes, though the size of the property will remain the same.
“What they’ve proposed is to increase the parking lot size so we are able to get bigger trucks and boats and trailers in here,” said Hickok. “They’re still going to take away our two entrances … which could affect us because we get big trucks that come in here and park and get something to eat.”
For her part, Hart said she will remain a loyal DeHart’s customer.
“To my mind, I think the roundabout will work,” Hart said. “I’ll still go to DeHart’s. I think the people that I know will still go to DeHart’s.”
At least some parts of the plan will be advantageous to DeHart’s, in Hickok’s view.
As part of the planned Don D. Statter Harbor improvements, another point of access to the boat launch ramp and harbor will be built just past DeHart’s, Port Director Carl Uchytil said.
“We’re getting the final permits for the new boat ramp … and hopefully we’ll start that next spring,” Uchytil said Friday.
Currently, the existing ramp is accessed from a driveway off Glacier Highway that also serves the DeHart’s parking lot.
“The traffic coming in and out the harbor is not going to be as big as it is now,” Hickok said, “which is good because … it doesn’t take much for the traffic to back up right there at the corner.”
With the roundabout moving away from DeHart’s, the retaining wall from the previous plan has become a grassy slope between the store and the road in the current plan.
“They have to bring the elevation up, apparently, so the road coming down from the Back Loop is a little less steep,” Hickok said.
Woodrow said sidewalks and bicycle lanes along that stretch of road will also be widened, with sidewalks on either side of both Back Loop Road and Glacier Highway.
Hickok said that could actually improve business at DeHart’s, even if the parking lot being reduced from having two entrances to one hurts it.
“It’ll be definitely a walk-friendly area, bike-friendly area,” said Hickok. “(There are) lots of kids around here going to and from school, and that’ll make it safer for them.”
Auke Bay Elementary School, like UAS, is within easy walking distance of DeHart’s.
Safety is the main reason Woodrow gave for the planned changes to the intersection.
Currently, Back Loop Road slopes downward to where it meets Glacier Highway at a bend in the latter road, and drivers wishing to turn left onto the highway must look around the bend while stopped on the decline to clear both lanes of traffic.
Drivers turning left out of either of the two entrances to the DeHart’s parking lot face a similar situation.
“This is a dangerous corner. I’m not going to deny that,” said Hickok, who asserted the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour through the area is frequently ignored. “Coming out of this parking lot every day … I definitely have my head on a swivel.”
Although some in the community, including DeHart’s owners, have suggested putting in traffic lights to control the intersection, DOT&PF has opted to plan for a roundabout, which will slow traffic as it passes through.
“The whole purpose of doing that roundabout there and doing this roadwork is … to make it safer,” Woodrow said.
Hart is still lobbying for a speed limit reduction in the area.
“The speed needs to be addressed immediately, because the speed really has a big impact on how DOT designs the road,” said Hart.
But Woodrow said the installation of the roundabout and widening of roadways and sidewalks should be sufficient for safety.
“Right now, the speed limits will stay as posted,” said Woodrow. “There has been talk about lowering it. There’s no reason to at this time.”
The matter of the roundabout, meanwhile, appears more or less settled.
Although Woodrow characterized DeHart’s owners as being “fine with this project now,” Hickok was more cautious in his assessment.
“I think we’re OK with the idea,” Hickok said. “I think there’s a compromise. We’re kind of crossing our fingers still. If it works, we don’t know. We don’t know until we try it.”
Construction could begin as early as next spring, though the project has yet to go out to bid. Woodrow said crews will seek to limit any inconvenience to drivers while road work is in progress.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.