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Part I: Big plans ahead for Juneau's most neglected district

Posted: March 24, 2013 - 12:03am
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Built on a filled-in waterfront, the Willoughby District is a spawling collection of government buildings, private businesses and homes.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Built on a filled-in waterfront, the Willoughby District is a spawling collection of government buildings, private businesses and homes.

It began as a curving arc of pristine waterfront that became a Native village. Then its waters were buried last century by mine tailings to create cheap, flat lots.

In one such former parking lot rises the State Library Archives and Museum (SLAM), a state-of-the-art museum and preservation site for Alaska’s precious historical archives. This sign of progress, of change and growth, is an isolated and hard-won project that is not yet fully funded.

Elsewhere in the district, small projects have bloomed, but more like crocuses exploring the early spring.

That could change.

The city has big, long-range plans for this mostly flat and — since a 1960s redevelopment plan that displaced many longtime residents — occasionally desolate patch of earth.

Where visitors to this entryway to Juneau’s historic downtown area now see blocky buildings and sprawl, planners see a mixed-use residential area. They see new streets, off-street parking and a new cultural center next to the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and Centennial Hall.

They see foot traffic and stores and shops, with families settling into affordable and market rate units on the floors above. And they see big buildings, larger than the usual grade for Juneau.

It’s all spelled out in an ambitious 88-page March 2012 city document called the Willoughby District Land Use Plan.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan establishes the following “direction for growth” in the Willoughby area:

• Support the establishment of a Cultural Campus;

• Seek to strengthen and enhance the Capitol Complex; and

• Provide for mixed-use development that integrates residential, retail and office uses.

The document starts out by proclaiming that the task isn’t going to be easy — or quick. It then sets a goal of 25 years for completion.

“The projects in it will be accomplished over time by a series of near to long term public sector investments in park and plaza space, infrastructure, and parking; and through private sector investments as land owners are ready to improve their properties,” states the report by consultant Sheinberg Associates compiled with NorthWind Architects, Walker Macy and Kittelson Associates.

 

 

Moving forward

With the planning done, what can be accomplished in this district?

“A lot of things are happening,” said Juneau Planning Director Hal Hart.

He said the master plan, formerly overseen by former city project manager Heather Marlow, “was done so we have something to look back at.”

Basic goals must be achieved to get things rolling, such as creating a template in which developers will want to build in that area.

“Getting a road network in there that’s conducive to creating corners, neighborhoods,” gathering places for people who live there, said Hart. Public parks or other facilities will prime the pump. “Public investments help leverage private investments.”

Working with the Lands Office, city engineers and the Juneau Economic Development Council, Hart said the Planning Department is also building a better relationship with the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which controls Egan Drive.

The ability to cross and access Egan Drive in large part controls whether the new neighborhood can be linked well to the new waterfront projects that are also underway.

(See related article.)

Also proposed is a new arts center backed by Perseverance Theater and the Juneau Arts and Culture Center that would rise on the same complex as Centennial Hall and the JACC.

 

Ad-hoc planning group already meets

Landowner Bruce Abel is part of a downtown revitalization planning group facilitated by the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) that has grabbed this particular land use issue by the horns.

“Currently there is a Willoughby District Working Group which has been meeting regularly for the past year to come up with ideas to deal with this blighted neighborhood,” Abel said. “NorthWind Architects has been instrumental in crafting a mixed use neighborhood concept which is excellent.”

City staffers sit with developers and other interested parties, and the discussions about the Willoughby District have been going on since the Willoughby District Land Use Plan was being drafted.

Architect James Bibb, who was raised in Juneau, sits in on the JEDC revitalization working group for NorthWind Architects. He led a Willoughby District tour last year for people interested in planning the area’s future.

He said the ad hoc working group “continues the dialogue” that began when former city staffer Heather Marlow was the master plan’s project manager.

As proposals for state buildings on the Subport property and the SLAM project hit the city, Bibb said many planning staffers were looking at the developments as things that would impact parking. He said Marlow quickly saw that “this is bigger than simply parking” and she saw the need for a district master plan.

Bibb said he is encouraged by new planning director Hart’s experience with urban planning and by the city’s participation in the working group’s talks. Bibb said broad policy discussions can happen when a group is dealing informally with concepts instead of a specific project’s plans.

JEDC Executive Director Brian Holst said discussions on the Willoughby District’s future are part of the overall downtown revitalization discussions hosted by JEDC. He said the district has much potential, and the discussions are an informal way for interested parties to get together.

While all say the talks are productive, one member says the process of moving forward with the city is ongoing.

“I don’t know that the city has a clear vision at this time,” Abel said. “The idea of mixed use is very encouraging, however, the CBJ needs to embrace a pro-development and partnership attitude and adopt policies encouraging private developers to fulfill the vision.”

Then there’s the timeline.

“A consistent theme for the neighborhood is being developed by a number of property owners. The infrastructure investment and CBJ involvement are the first steps to encourage private investment,” Abel said. “But why should redevelopment take 25 years? The needs of the community in terms of housing are urgent now.”

 

Current occupants optimistic

While needs are urgent, any work toward moving ahead is being done out of the sight of some who do business there, and there hasn’t been much change in the area since the large office complexes and condos were built.

A bowling alley and the Foodland supermarket and its neighbors in the plaza are bright spots during the dark hours. Diners flock to a couple of local restaurants. The streets are not inviting to night-time strollers.

Capitol Street is a well-used pedestrian and vehicle corridor between West Willoughby Avenue and homes across Gold Creek, and a route to and from the stairs serving the Fosbee Apartments area. It has sparse lighting, rough pavement, no paved sidewalks and is named either Capital or Capitol, depending on which street sign is read.

Pedestrians heading for Egan from West Willoughby Avenue cross concrete-lined Gold Creek’s overpass to the west on a narrow sidewalk, and pedestrians pass closed offices after business hours.

The Salvation Army and some other agencies have buildings there, and the multi-story State Office Building makes up a border between the end of Willoughby and downtown.

Some homes nestle against the bluff that was once the Tlingit shoreline village and is still known as The Village.

What city planners don’t want to do is upset any apple carts that aren’t selling rotten apples. Large parking lots seem to be the rotten apples.

“We’ve got some really good things that we want to preserve there,” said Hart, naming off the existing businesses, including the newly purchased Foodland grocery store that is slated to undergo renovations, and the shopping center in which it sits.

Tyler Myers, whose Seattle-based firm The Myers Group bought the former A&P store last year and began sprucing-up the store, could not be reached for comment.

Some business owners say the neighborhood has its ups and downs, but lately it’s ups with lots of potential.

Grady Saunders is president and CEO of Heritage Coffee Co., which has a coffee roasting facility in the district near the bowling alley. The front windows of the Heritage building are papered with city construction permits.

“We are already investing in the area with improvements to our existing business.” he said.

Saunders sees parking issues as a serious concern for potential developers as future development plans move forward, and said he hopes it is sooner than 25 years before the district improves.

Saunders said he sees more potential for rental housing than home ownership in the area.

Taku Lanes owners Barry and Cindy Stuart have been running the bowling alley for more than two years.

Cindy Stuart was enthusiastic about positives of doing business in the neighborhood and the potential for creating a new neighborhood with homes, shops and more commercial businesses.

“I agree with that, that would be awesome,” Cindy Stuart said of the overall long-range plan. She said the bowling alley is all about being a family-friendly business, and more families mean more potential customers.

“Things are actually getting better,” she said of the district.

Her business certainly looks different than it did a couple of years ago. A new access ramp installed in late 2010 and new steps create easier access to the 50-plus-year-old building.

The next step for Taku Lanes is painting the outside, which she said is dependent only on some decent weather.

The next step for the city planning staff in its quest to get things moving is to roll up some sleeves and dig in to the details of what kind of incentives and civic improvements are needed.

“I’m looking forward to engaging this, finding incentives and moving forward,” said Hart.

Hart said he hopes to build the kind of relationships that bring about successful public/private partnerships that will strengthen Juneau and build a new neighborhood, not create an adverserial relationship where the city is a roadblock. “We’re all in this together.”

 

 

Tomorrow: What must happen for new development to take root in the Willoughby District?

 

 

PULL QUOTES/Excerpts — Willoughby District Master Plan

 

“With continued growth, Juneau’s Willoughby District experienced its first urban renewal projects in the late 1960’s. While offices, civic buildings and the Parkshore Condominiums were constructed, this also included displacing large areas of housing and local businesses. This effort forced long-time residents out of their homes without replacement housing, resulting in the wide scale transfer of land from lower income people to commercial entities and higher income residents.

Additionally, the promise of additional modern housing to be constructed in this area was never realized. These actions are clearly remembered by residents of today’s remaining Indian Village and the Central Council of Tlingit Haida Indians of Alaska.”

— Willoughby District Land Use Plan

 

“In summary, the history of the Willoughby District is of a neighborhood that has experienced all of Juneau’s many economic, civil and cultural changes. (It) began as a traditional Auk Tlingit fishing site. Expansion and rapid development over the past 130 years occurred as the area’s initial residential area and Indian Village grew to include industrial, military, civic, and cultural uses. Growth in this area has continued through the 1980’s to the present day. This Plan intends to guide the direction of future redevelopment and investment in the District, to realize the ideal of being a capitol and civic district that showcases Juneau to residents, visitors and all Alaskans.”

— Willoughby District Land Use Plan

 

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