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Downtown Juneau: Vacant or vital

Posted: April 7, 2013 - 12:10am
High rental rates and a five-month tourism season make it hard for some businesses to survive in Juneau.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
High rental rates and a five-month tourism season make it hard for some businesses to survive in Juneau.

From deep in the valley of gemstone and T-shirt shops lining South Franklin Street to high on Seward Street’s sloping sidewalks — where the crest of summer visitors breaks under the gravity of Juneau’s steep streets — a noticeable number of store fronts lack tenants as the tourism season grows near.

Three dark windows are on the left side of Seward Street, going uphill. These spaces have housed several businesses recently including the bright, green space of the Plant People LLC and The Greasy Spoon Restaurant with its hand written window signs. The spaces are empty again.

Various owners of about a dozen storefronts in the downtown area appear to be in need of renters.

Art Sutch Photo and Digital is located across the street from some vacant shops that belong to Juneauite Bernard Wostmann, who could not be reached immediately for comment. Shop owner Art Sutch is free with his take on Juneau’s happenings. He said the believed the spaces and others on Seward Street and North and South Franklin Street boil down to a few main factors: High rent, declining downtown population and, not to forget, world wide economic turmoil.

“The cost to rent a space down on South Franklin pushes up rents for all of us,” Sutch said of his fellow merchants.

Sutch said he sees fewer people in the downtown area over the winter, a concern for a shop owner who relies on foot traffic. He said he attributes the decline in potential shoppers to a lack of spare cash to shop and a dearth of housing downtown. The problem was made more by the recent fire that closed the Gastineau Apartments, he said.

A call to Gastineau Apartments owner James Barrett about the future of that now-empty building went unanswered Friday.

It is generally considered that the downtown area needs between 40 and 100 more residential units to spark a self-sustaining community. New services would need to be developed to feed and entertain these new residents.

And people are talking.

 

Work has started

The health of Juneau’s downtown is a growing concern for Juneau’s elected officials and staff.

The City and Borough of Juneau has at times tried to pop the stubborn kernel of kickstarting a revitalized, vibrant downtown Juneau. They have changed codes in many areas to reduce parking requirements and increase housing density to attract more residents and developers to the historic district. They are working with the Juneau Economic Development Council as it guides groups of industry experts and volunteers on drastic downtown and Willoughby District revitalization efforts.

The Juneau Economic Development Council has hosted revitalization workshops focusing on of downtown area and its neighbor, the Willoughby District.

“Our vision is that Juneau borough residents will utilize the downtown area as THE primary year-round hub for living, leisure, government and business,” the JEDC said in a 2012 statement as it hosted stakeholder talks on initiatives to revitalize the area.

Executive Director Brian Holst recently told the Empire that the Willoughby District talks happening now grew out of the downtown revitalization movement.

Holst says he is encouraged by the fact that city officials have sat down at the table and that new leadership in planning seems willing to work with developers and property owners.

Also on the map is the pending construction of the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter A. Soboleff Center, a cultural center expected to have an economic impact during construction of around $28.1 million and according to the SHI website “30 full time, permanent jobs, including an additional 11 well-paying jobs” while aiding in the city’s goals of downtown revitalization. It fills an empty lot once known as “The Pit” where a building once full of businesses burned to the ground.

A project some last year hoped would start the economic transformation downtown failed to catch on.

Just last July the Juneau Housing Trust and the owners of the Gross 20th Century Theater failed to reach an agreement to renovate that decades-old building to provide affordable housing and performing arts theater in downtown Juneau.

The project, which would have made 22 one-, two- and three-bedroom housing units available downtown, would have cost as much as $20 million.

The trust also planned to remodel the art deco theater on the building’s first floor, turning it into a performing arts theater. Perseverance Theater had expressed interest in using that newly-remodeled space, but has since switched gears and now has teamed up with the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council to champion a two-theatre mixed-use building that also may incorporate more than a dozen living units between Centennial Hall and the Juneau Arts & Culture Center in the Willoughby District.

Monday in this series, the Empire will look at another downtown theater, this one closed for years, and examine its past uses and its potential future.

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

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