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City exempts new SHI center from historic district rules

Posted: January 28, 2013 - 9:44pm  |  Updated: January 29, 2013 - 1:07am

Sealaska Heritage Institute’s cultural center won an exclusion from Juneau’s downtown historic district.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly granted SHI’s ordinance Monday. The ordinance excludes the block encompassed by Seward Street, Front Street, Shattuck Way and Municipal Way from historic district height and appearance limitations.

It is within a block known as ‘the pit’ that SHI plans to build its Walter Soboleff Center for Alaska Native heritage and culture.

Juneau’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee proposed in December 2012 to exclude all but the first five feet of the block facing Front Street. This five-foot section of the building would remain in the style of the surrounding buildings.

The Soboleff center is depicted in SHI artwork as a multi-story modern structure with large windows native artwork facing the street.

It is this requirement that irked several of the public who provided testimony Monday night.

Juneau resident Joel Nelson said he understands the value of maintaining history. It improves the value of an area, he said.

“The idea of this native communal building being whitewashed, to have a Victorian face put on it, peels a scab we don’t want to peel in this town,” Nelson said.

Walter Soboleff, the center’s namesake and honored Native leader, approved of the building’s design himself, Rosita Worl president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute said. Soboleff passed away in 2011.

The historic committee’s recommendation would result in delays in design and construction and in an additional $120,000 in costs, Worl said. Limiting the height to historic standards would also reduce the revenue-generating space of the facility. The new Victorian-style façade would adversely affect the Native Alaskan design of the building and would open old wounds between Natives and non-natives.

“Singularly based on mining heritage it could appear to reject the Native Alaskan heritage of the area,” Worl said. She said she was uncomfortable with a Native design representing four core Tlingit cultural values on one side and a Victorian façade on the other.

Sealaska Corporation Executive Vice President Richard Harris said the development of its open downtown property is a partnership between the company and the city.

Sealaska filled ‘the pit‘ and paid for landscaping for around $50,000.

“We have made an honest commitment to make this downtown area a better place,” Harris said. “Making this design Victorian would be troubling to us.”

The Assembly passed the ordinance to exclude the entire block from Juneau’s downtown historic district without objection.

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

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