Crouching under the shadows of the Goldbelt and Federal buildings is a housing and commercial project that radiates a forward-thinking mentality of construction in Juneau.
Formerly dilapidated, the building that still houses Seong’s Sushi Bar in the Willoughby District off Glacier Avenue, became a sort of “extracurricular” project of revitalization for the Voelckers.
“My son James, he first noticed the property was for sale and said, ‘Man, we should look at this as a group,’” said Paul Voelckers, president of MRV Architects.
The family has been working on the property with Alaska Commercial Contractors since last year and is nearing completion in the coming weeks.
“It’s one we’ve jumped in on about a year ago and thought that lot was so homely and strategically important,” Voelckers said.
After acquiring the building and some razing to the property, the family transformed the building from a single three-bedroom apartment on the top floor to a couple two-bedrooms and two single-bedrooms with room for three commercial spaces below, one of which remains occupied by Seong’s.
“What Mr. Voelckers has done is have commercial on the first floor then mixing that with residential apartments above,” said Ben Lyman, Community Development Department planner, who lauded the project. “Paul, with his project, brought that idea of having that mixture of uses next to the busiest transit stop in Juneau.”
With the State Library, Archives and Museum building under construction a few blocks away and the newly opened Heritage Coffee corporate offices within walking distance, this project adds to the growing number of revitalization projects in the area.
“I think most people understand this area is going through a mini renaissance,” Voelckers said.
More developers and contractors are looking to the area for its unique zoning as mixed-use, something that encouraged Voelckers and his family.
“The CBJ is actually fairly unique in that we have permitted mixed-use development for decades,” Lyman said. “Many don’t.”
Classic types of zoning are considered incompatible here and are ubiquitous throughout cookie-cutter America: mile after mile of residential subdivisions, endless strip malls.
Last year, in maintaining focus on city goals of building where there are established utilities and an infrastructure in place, the city increased population dwelling and density restrictions that once hindered growth.
“We have really been stepping that up in more recent years,” Lyman said.
Ordinance 2012-24 passed the Assembly in July 2012 and increased the dwelling unites per acre in general commercial lots to 50 units per acre, up from 18. Mixed Use 2 lots increased to 80 units per dwelling.
The land Voelckers built on, zoned light commercial, increased from 18 units per acre to 30.
“Through changes like that in our code, we effectively created 16,000 new dwelling units in the City and Borough of Juneau,” Lyman said.
Within a day, the apartments were filled, echoing not only the evident need for housing in Juneau, but also a nationwide trend.
“We had the upstairs rented months before it was completed. One day on Craigslist and it was filled,” Voelckers said. “It’s too bad we can’t get more housing stock downtown.”
One of the couples living in the apartments moved from a larger house on Douglas to live closer to amenities and the heart of the Capital City.
Lyman said it is underlining a growing trend. When older children graduate college and head off to start their lives, having used the home to raise a family and no longer needing large property, couples are looking to urban areas.
Once there, they have access to places that would have otherwise taken a 15- or 30-minute drive, sometimes more.
“Overall house size is decreasing,” Lyman said. “What that means is the historical trend of building bigger and bigger houses is no longer what the market is supporting. What we’re really seeing now is a shortage of smaller dwelling units.”
The search for housing and places to develop isn’t devoid of caveats. Issues with the permitting process, financing and city requirements are what keep builders from beginning projects.
“When people complain that building regulations are excessive, they’re complaining about what we’re requiring be put in buildings,” said Rob Steedle, Deputy City Manager. “It’s an education issue.”
Steedle explained that the state adapts the international building code for Alaska. From there, the CBJ takes what the state has adopted and the Building Code Review Committee makes changes that would benefit Juneau.
The building code is “done at the state level and, in turn, is following the code. It’s all about health and safety and, admittedly, it drives up cost. But it drives up cost because we want people to live in safe and healthy homes,” Steedle said. “We can make it more stringent than the state, but we can’t make it less stringent.”
A bill that passed this legislative session is a new channel of assistance for spearheading increased housing and business in areas such as the Willoughby District.
House Bill 50 will allow the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to finance mixed commercial and residential developments statewide. Current Alaska statute prevents the type of financing that would potentially lead to further development like Voelckers’ 917 Glacier project.
“At this point, HB 50 has passed. We’re going to have the ability to do mixed-use,” Daniel Delfino, a planner with AHFC, said. “We have to go out for public comment for our proposed regulations then they have to be approved by our board of directors.”
Members of the Juneau delegation were among those who supported the bill that goes into effect at the end of September, the same time AHFC hopes to have regulations adopted.
“I think its wonderful, not just for Juneau, but for the rest of the state,” Delfino said. “It gives us the ability to be more of a player in where the housing needs are. As a planner, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Alternatively, there’s the option to take out a loan, an investment worthy of exploring, according to Tom Sullivan, Senior Vice President at Alaska Pacific Bank.
“There are a lot of people, based on the housing need, that are definitely looking at putting some sort of residential component on the top floor and commercial space down below,” Sullivan said. “With today’s rental market it’s virtually assured your residential units will be snapped right up.”
The 917 Project
It’s a miniature city—a slice of community within a community. It’s not the Mendenhall Tower or Marine View, it’s something different and essential: a live-work opportunity, to use Voelckers’ term.
“I guess you could call it a European older village model where we used to have a greater density and an interesting commingling where people worked and people did their commerce,” he said. “You brought a greater sense of community and, in a practical sense, it creates density. It kind of recentralizes things.”
Tenants walk the 75 or so feet to and from work and, pending the signing of a lease, can grab their coffee from the now vacant storefront where plans for a coffee shop are in the works.
To boot, the renovation and construction were carried out with environmentally friendly materials included triple glazed glass windows and metal siding that won’t deteriorate in a decade. Notice something familiar? Timber from the Subport Building was salvaged and used as joists.
A heavy emphasis was also put on landscaping and the sidewalk with larger windows, table and seating areas.
“It’s a sensitivity to frontage and seeding and planting and looking at how the dynamic of a sidewalk works so it feels comfortable,” he said.
It’s something of a project that is looking toward the horizon, and not only a current need.
“The 917 project is a great example of a local person going the extra mile to build a project that would not only meet their economic needs,” Ben Lyman, the city planner, said, “but support the community.”
• Contact reporter Kenneth Rosen at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.