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Empire Editorial: Willoughby area needs more than just a conceptual plan

Posted: August 1, 2011 - 8:37pm

The City and Borough of Juneau’s plans for the Willoughby District are ambitious and will go far toward reversing within Juneau some negative population trends facing the whole of Southeast Alaska — if they come to pass.

The plan outlined on the city’s website calls for mixed use development — housing, shops and offices in an area roughly between the Federal Building and the Centennial Hall/JACC area and encompassing the Foodland shopping center and the Capitol Avenue area.

The idea is to have the now rather desolate area develop in roughly the same manner as downtown, with resident-serving businesses that encourage street traffic and new streets in place of the acres of parking lots that now mark the area.

Stakes are high for Juneau, where population projections show an aging population. Realtors will tell you the only thing missing on our real estate market is product — Juneau needs more affordable homes. The city has made an effort to encourage low- and moderate-income construction, but the amount of money available is small compared to the need.

Our concern about the future of the Willoughby area plan is that — while the city has a concept — an action plan seems lacking. Without some kind of official agency to prepare parcels for development, the city will have to rely on “the market” to provide infill development around ongoing state projects like the new state library and archives.

Hope may not be enough. The city can’t rely on a new state capitol complex eventually being built, nor can it assume that the new state offices will anchor a corner of that area where the state parking garage now stands. There is land in the Mendenhall Valley that might be chosen for the new state offices.

A complicating factor is the crazy-quilt of land ownership in the area among state, federal and private owners.

The most oppressive option available to a city is a formal redevelopment agency, wherein the Assembly would convene as an agency with the power to compel the sale of private property. Redevelopment has been used elsewhere to commit a multitude of sins in the past, wiping out entire economically viable business districts and replacing them with projects that became blight.

In the case of the Willoughby area, the blight is already present in the form of vast open spaces covered in asphalt and a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly environment. The area as a whole presents a poor face for visitors to our town and has a general air of neglect.

We hope the city will establish some kind of non-profit development corporation or board specifically aimed at encouraging private development of this area through the willing support of existing landowners and cooperation by state and federal agencies.

Juneau is a beautiful city, and like many others it needs to expand housing and business opportunities while creating a functional waterfront. Trusting to “the market” and government-funded developments to provide what is needed is a bad idea. That’s how the area became what it is today.

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