For a clear view of what ails the Willoughby District, a trip to the State Office Building for a bird’s-eye view might put things in perspective. Spread below, looking toward the Gastineau Channel and Douglas Bridge, is a patchwork of jumbled uses. Some buildings seem to be temporary structures, blocky offices loom — and sprinkled throughout this district are seas of asphalt.
All of that is wrapped into what planners call two “super blocks” that are not as pedestrian friendly as they should be.
The city has a plan for the Willoughby District that, if achieved, could turn a sparsely-populated commercial, office and residential neighborhood into a vibrant mixed-use zone — essentially a new neighborhood with new streets built where an old neighborhood once stood.
The city and various stakeholders are meeting in a working group to discuss the future, and what the city can do to move things forward.
Tax credits and other things that make building there more attractive are part of what developers want.
Another issue is what potential builders see as the need for a fundamental change in implementation of city codes to allow for implementation of a development policy spelled out in city plans that pushes buildings up into the sky and parking areas out of sight.
City Planning Director Hal Hart sees this time as crucial to build consensus with developers willing to invest in that district, and remove obstacles to progress.
The Willoughby District Land Use Plan calls for regulatory changes and financial incentives to attract developers and create public/private partnerships that achieve the city’s development goals.
The city can also offer roads and sidewalks and other amenities developers will not have to create.
“I will work with any owner in that area,” Hart said. “...we can find ways to work together.”
Part of that new approach may be a different way to handle parking issues and parking space requirements. If the city encourages a five story building with four floors of residential above, “how are we going to ‘park’ that structure?” he asked.
Parking issues are on a lot of people’s minds.
Parking lot blight
Atop the landfill that underpins most of the Willoughby District are state and federal buildings, some homes, small businesses, a shopping center and… parking.
Lot after lot of asphalt slabs or dirt lots for decades have served day workers, then they empty out in the evening.
One veteran builder thinks the solution is redefining how the city interprets its own rules, and redefining how open city staff must become to approving the non-traditional.
“Even though their hands are somewhat tied up in a maze of CBJ adopted rules and regulations, the city staff has generally been very helpful and pleasant to work with,” said Brad Cure’, owner of the Willoughby Building.
There is new focus on the neighborhood these days as a towering crane helps build the high-profile State Library Archives and Museum (SLAM) project. Cure’ began trying to build in the kinds of projects the city now wants at a time — 1999 — when the district was stagnant and city staff were sticklers for the rules.
“Unfortunately I think they (city staff) have been taught to interpret the zoning rules in a black and white format,” Cure’ said. “But the world is full of grey and therefore one needs to think about individual situations before intelligent interpretations of zoning and codes can be made. That’s why they have a person behind the desk and not computers. An example, look at the huge parking lots that have been created as a result of these zoning interpretations.”
Cure’ advocates heavy integration of public transit options and shuttles as a new neighborhood is developed. He uses his experiences traveling abroad to interpret what might work here, and he sees a future in moving the parking bringing worker to and from it.
“I travel internationally quite frequently,” Cure’ said. “One thing that stands out mostly in my travels to foreign cities is their frequent and integrated transportation systems. People are not as much dependent upon personal cars as we Americans are. Public transportation is something that we need to make both useful and convenient. It is a major element to a successful city. An integrated partnership approach to the problem might be (that) a continuous shuttle bus delivers you close to your work; you exit and walk the remaining distance mostly under a covered walkway that winds through small-integrated park spaces and storefronts. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Flexibility hasn’t been associated with Cure’s past dealings with the city.
When he built an office building with residential units above in 1999, which he still owns, Cure’ sought permission to install an awning and have a zero setback from the street. The city told him his location, across from the Driftwood Lodge, was residential and a 10-foot setback was required. The awning was nixed, but he negotiated a two-foot setback.
Fast forward to circa 2009, he received a letter from the city telling him it might be OK to proceed with that awning, if he so chose.
Four condominiums built by Cure’, the Patagonia Condominiums, sit tucked behind the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. As for the neighborhood, Cure’ said he still misses living in one of those condos, and he said if the area became an attractive building site he’d consider new projects there.
Transit is also on the new city planing director’s radar.
“The city is open to making it transit-friendly,” Hart said, noting the district’s existing transit lines, the downtown transit hub and the defacto transit center at the Federal Building. “I think that is a great discussion to have.”
The R-word: Redevelopment or redevelopment?
The district is a patchwork of public and private holdings. There are 27 private landowners. Public lands are owned by the City and Borough of Juneau, the state, the Alaska Mental Health Trust’s Land Trust and the federal government.
That’s a lot of people in one boat. How can the city get folks rowing the same direction?
“In order to get the vision there has to be a kind of a method to it,” said City Planning Director Hal Hart.
Hart said all stakeholders must be in the loop and the city must “look opportunistically for redevelopment opportunities.”
And that word, redevelopment, can describe both a process for rebuilding and a formal legal tool that a local government may use if necessary to condemn and purchase land for the public interest and prepare parcels for developments. Right now the track is informal.
So, is the city thinking about informal or formal processes to achieve the Willoughby ideal?
“The very question brings up the need for a group to study it,” said Hart. Juneau must “keep stakeholders in the loop so they can see opportunities” as they come up.
At the land trust administering the Alaska Mental Health Trust’s Subport land holdings, they’re paying plenty of attention. When the city began Willoughby-area planning, “we contributed a little bit of money to help with the planning,” said Land Trust spokesperson Marcie Menefee.
The Land Trust was very involved in meetings that resulted in the area’s master plan.
The trust’s lands are tied up for the next two or three years as part of the SLAM complex construction project. Menefee said it was important to find someone who wanted to pay the trust for using the land. She said that move also bought the trust’s land managers a couple of years to figure out what might be done with the land they once hoped would house a new state office complex.
Menefee said two trust employees are monitoring the developments in the Willoughby area.
Property owner Bruce Abel seems optimistic that a turnaround for Willoughby is doable without the legal hammer a redevelopment district employs.
“I believe the private sector is already organizing and discussing a unified approach to redevelopment,” Abel said. “I’m a simple guy. If the CBJ creates the right regulatory environment and incentives the private sector will respond favorably, so I’m not sure a formal city redevelopment district is necessary from a private owners standpoint. Northwind Architects has been the primary driver bringing many stakeholders to the table, including JEDC and the CBJ and a vision is beginning to emerge already. Owners in the Willoughby District seem excited by the vision.”
Zoning, policies key to progress
Members of the Willoughby District Working Group, an informal group facilitated by the Juneau Economic Development Council as part of its downtown revitalization project, have met this past year to gather ideas.
As far as redeveloping Willoughby, group member Abel said the city has historically been its own worst enemy.
“The CBJ has been the primary driver in the decline of the neighborhood. The tax penalties associated with building improvements coupled with numerous policy barriers in the form of building and parking ordinances and enforcement has discouraged reinvestment and deflated property values,” Abel said. “However, the interest and participation by the CBJ in the WDWG as well as the recent change in leadership at the Community Development Office is encouraging.”
The sheer size of the plan is not so encouraging to Abel.
“…The Master Plan, despite revisions, has become so convoluted it isn’t a reasonable working document and is in desperate need of a complete rewrite. Certainly I would be happy to discuss ways the CBJ can eliminate barriers to development and redevelopment of the Willoughby District.”
Can Juneau wait 25 years?
Abel sees the area as ideal for mixed use development, holding 800 residential units for sale or rent, but only if the city Assembly and planners work together with developers.
But will that happen?
“As a property owner in the Willoughby District both my partner and I are keenly interested in seeing the city embrace it’s role and take action. We have a tendency, as a community, to talk things to death rather than moving forward and adjusting as necessary,” Abel said. “The city can do a great deal to incentivize property owners to create mixed use properties. This would certainly help alleviate some of the housing needs in Juneau quickly and efficiently as well as bring new business to Juneau. The city and property owners can work to reinvigorate the area but it will require action on the part of the CBJ to see the neighborhood reach its full potential.”
Hart said he looks forward to the dialogue with land owners, and to making progress on the kinds of capital improvement items that have to move forward to get things rolling in the district.
It’s an awfully detailed dance, Hart said, “and we have to get it right.”