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Architect sees endless possibilities in Willoughby

A concrete plan is needed to move development, housing plans further to fruition

Posted: July 25, 2013 - 9:28pm  |  Updated: July 26, 2013 - 12:07am
James Bibb of NorthWind Architects speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the Willoughby District during their weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
James Bibb of NorthWind Architects speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the Willoughby District during their weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.

For a moment, imagine their perspective.

Aboard ships, whether small commercial fishing boats or behemoth cruise liners that take port daily throughout tourism season, passengers are treated to a city tucked into the hillsides of Mount Juneau and Roberts, sprawling farther down Gastineau Channel off Egan Drive and into the Valley.

After passing Sandy Beach and the Treadwell Mine Pump, past Taku Fisheries/Smokeries and into the inner harbor, they glean a taste of future development efforts progressing toward completion.

“You certainly don’t need me here to tell you there’s development there,” said James Bibb, principal architect at North Wind Architects, “there’s a nice crane there to signify development.”

Bibb, who spoke before the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at its weekly luncheon Thursday, was referring to the crane working over the State Library and Archives Museum in the Willoughby District, although there is another crane toiling over the site for the future Walter Soboleff Center downtown.

“It overlays a nationwide trend, even trends we find in Alaska itself,” Bibb said. “Significant portions of our population, especially the young and retired, want to and are moving back to downtown areas.”

In urging the private sector to develop in the Willoughby District, he nodded toward recent projects — Heritage Corporate offices, the 917 Glacier project — that are ushering much needed development in an area that has remained largely untouched in recent years.

After the presentation, Bibb noted that nothing would come to fruition without someone taking lead on a concentrated revival effort.

The Juneau Economic Development Council “have sort have been playing an ad hoc role,” said Bibb. “In the grand scheme, there would be a development corporation to market this and attract developers.”

Bibb stressed that with his presentation he intended to bring planning back to the public and those who would benefit from projects there.

One instance of local organizations making large investments in the future of the Willoughby District is The Juneau Arts and Culture Center partnering with Perseverance Theater.

But more can be done.

As the largest expansion effort since the 1960s Capital expansion, projects are slowly cropping up in the Willoughby District, though housing remains constrained.

“If we can get density in the housing, then I think the private sector will invest immediately,” Bibb said. “If housing starts to be introduced, all of a sudden you have a tightly developed first phase.”

The City and Borough of Juneau has a Comprehensive Plan that seems all-encompassing, but there is also the Willoughby District Land Use Plan, created in June 2012 (http://goo.gl/ih9WkV). It acts as an outline for market driven development, along with financial incentives, for housing, among other findings.

“They’ve done a lot of work over the years putting together their comprehensive plan and generally they planned what’s the purpose for the city, what’s the expansion,” Bibb said. “There’s a need here. The next step would be developing a master plan to look into the redevelopment plan.”

For now, there is no adopted plan.

“The big switch is to get more people a part of the discussion, a part of the process,” Bibb said. “That’s why a lot of the development has been done on the government side without thought to a greater solution.”

Ruminating over the potential for the area, Bibb remembered growing up in Juneau, juxtaposing it with his hopes for the future.

“It really had that small town feel to it. Everything was downtown at the time and I think we still can do that,” Bibb said. “I hope that happens.”

Contact reporter Kenneth Rosen at 523-2250 or at kenneth.rosen@juneauempire.com.

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