After seven years, AWARE to break ground on new shelter

Saralyn Tabachnick, executive director of Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, explains the blueprints for the organization's new transitional living shelter on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at the organization's headquarters. The shelter will begin construction in early May. (Katie Moritz photo)

For many, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meetings are a necessary evil — a means of keeping democracy intact, but not the most thrilling way to spend a Monday night. For Saralyn Tabachnick, an assembly vote to rezone a piece of land was a huge milestone after years of work toward one goal: building a new transitional living shelter for Juneau’s victims of domestic violence.

At its meeting this week, the assembly unanimously OK’d a zoning change that will allow Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies to build a 12-unit long-term shelter on land in the Twin Lakes area. Construction could begin as early as May, and the shelter may open as soon as this fall.

“I’m thrilled,” said Tabachnick, executive director of AWARE. “I almost burst into tears at the assembly meeting.”

The shelter will be used by women and children coming out of AWARE’s emergency domestic violence shelter and is meant to be a more permanent home for them as they transition back into the community. The two-story building will include 12 apartments — four efficiencies, four one-bedrooms and four two-bedrooms.

AWARE clients will be able to live at the transitional housing shelter for three to 36 months, Tabachnick said. There probably will be an application process to move into the shelter, but those details are still being worked out, she said. The women will have to pay rent, but AWARE may provide some rental subsidies.

“What we’re really hoping is that they’ll pay rent as part of moving onto independence,” Tabachnick said.

According to AWARE, the emergency shelter provides a collective 7,200 nights of safe shelter for about 220 women and children per year. There’s no time limit on how long clients can stay at the emergency shelter, Tabachnick said, because of the difficulty of finding housing in Juneau. The emergency shelter will stay open once the transitional housing shelter opens.

The facility also will include meeting space that could be used for healthy relationships or financial literacy classes. A manager will live on-site, Tabachnick said.

The building was designed by Robin Gilcrist, an architectural designer and University of Alaska Southeast construction technology assistant professor. Gilcrist is an AWARE board member and donated her time and skills for the design.

“I really believe in the mission of AWARE, so it’s just kind of a natural progression for me to use my professional skills in a way that’s really going to help other people,” she said.

The building’s roof will be outfitted with a raised skylight to project natural light through the center of both floors.

“As you walk into the main entry, there will be natural light right in the middle of the building,” Gilcrist said.

She came up with her ideas after brainstorming with Tabachnick and other AWARE staff.

“I just sat and sketched until I came up with some ideas I could show to the AWARE board,” she said. “It’s been fun; it’s a great group to work with.”

The result is exactly what Tabachnick had in mind. “It’s very simple and very nice,” Tabachnick said of the design.

Gilcrist was approached by AWARE about eight years ago to asses the property next to the existing shelter. AWARE purchased the wooded lot in 2007 in hopes it would be a good location for the long-term shelter. However, because of the land’s steepness, it would have cost $3.5 million to build six units, Tabachnick said. The cost was “prohibitive,” she said. “We want to be good stewards of public and private funds.”

Gilcrist joined the board after doing the initial property assessment, and AWARE worked to find a new location and raise money for the transitional housing shelter. In 2012, AWARE ran a fundraising campaign. Four hundred people donated a total of $170,000. The Rasmussen Foundation pitched in another $1 million, as did the state.

Local construction company Bicknell Inc. found the Twin Lakes lot for AWARE earlier this year. Now that the site has been rezoned, Bicknell will start “building from the ground up,” Tabachnick said.

After years of planning, the last few months have gone by quickly and easily, she said. “It happened really quickly and I have to say the (city Community Development Department) has been really great to work with,” Gilcrist said. “Having followed their recommendations, it was a pretty straightforward process, and of course the results were exactly what we wanted.”

Tabachnick wrote letters to the neighbors, too, telling them the plan ahead of time. She said AWARE brought the building blueprints and was able to answer all the neighbors’ questions at the meeting.

Gilcrist said it was important for AWARE to be very specific about its plans and needs.

“I want to make sure we don’t make zoning changes on a whim,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to do the public process and the public agreed, yes, this is a good project for the neighborhood.”

After seven years of developing a viable plan for transitional housing for AWARE clients, to finally see it come to fruition is a dream come true, Tabachnick said. She said she’s proud the community sees value in building the facility. She’ll soon be writing a letter “with gratitude and excitment” to the donors who gave money in the capital campaign two years ago, thanking them for believing in the project long-term.

“It’s not just a service for AWARE, it’s a service for the community,” Tabachnick said.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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