CBJ offers a crystal ball for the Willoughby district

The City and Borough of Juneau wants to help Willoughby owners and developers with a vision of what could be.


CBJ staff accompanied a downtown revitalization group Wednesday on a critical walk through the Willoughby district. The group is part of a Juneau Economic Development Council program to encourage local stakeholders and volunteers to create redevelopment recommendations for Juneau’s downtown area.

CBJ Lands and Resources Manager Heather Marlow accompanied the group.

She said the city was able to assist the group with recommendations on where to focus its efforts, Marlow said in a recent telephone interview.

“How I thought they could organize their work,” Marlow said.

Revitalizing Willoughby faces both challenges and opportunities, Marlow said. Each property will require its own solution, she said.

Marlow said she recommended the group focus its efforts on a circulator transportation system, such as a streetcar, and how it might affect parking in the area.

Surface parking is the bane of Willoughby’s cohesion. However, help may be on the way. Within the last year CBJ updated its code to increase housing density and decrease parking requirements in the area.

“Less parking and more building,” Marlow said.

Marlow said she remembered an incident that convinced her to start work on the Willoughby Plan.

Alaska’s Mental Health Trust wanted to purchase city land to build a parking garage to accompany a State office building proposed for the sub-port property. Marlow said she had to deny mental health’s request. She said she did not have CBJ guidelines at the time that would allow her to make the sale. She had no satisfactory reply, she said.

“Other than we don’t know what we are doing, so I can’t say yes,” Marlow said. “We need to plan. We need to make sure we are using the best strategy.”

Marlow said this happens best through synergy between the public and private sector.

Willoughby has quite a few buildings that are at or near the end of their design life. However, the area is split between relatively few property owners, the state and city in possession of the largest parcels.

Any district-wide redevelopment would rely on “only about a dozen land owners,” Marlow said.

New buildings are encouraged to offer street level retail and activity-creating spaces, according to the March 2012 Willoughby District Land Use Plan. The plan prefers spaces with entrances that abut sidewalks and cars parked back behind.

However, the city may have to do more to prime development.

Should the city help foot the bill for a property’s aesthetic improvements? One potential Willoughby developer feels the city should help bear the cost to update a property to match the city’s district-wide vision, Marlow said.

For property such as the Foodland Center the city is creating design sketches and conducting market analysis to prepare the property for sale, Marlow said. She said the city is offering similar support for the Alaska Mental Health Trust’s Subport property.

The entrance of the State Library Archives Museum opens onto Whittier Street. And Whittier Street is crumbling, Marlow said.

“[SLAM] is $120 million project,” Marlow said. “We should probably have a better street.”

The project is expected to be complete in April of 2016.

As the SLAM project is expected to reshape the space it will occupy, the city is looking for way to prioritize city project work to align with SLAM project work.

An example would be city work to improve access to Gold Creek, Marlow said, to make the water body more of a resource. The project would give a facelift to the banks of the river from the Willoughby bridge down to Egan bridge, she said. The city may put in picnic tables along the banks of a safer Gold Creek landscape.

All of the city’s efforts are ripening as Willoughby begins its transformation. But the drive for change is not over.

“It is a process that is in motion,” Marlow said, “and all of the tools are not adopted at this point. We will continue to adopt new tools to reduce barriers.” This could happen within the next year.

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


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