Empire Readers' Council Editorial: Cultivating a year-round vibrant downtown

Downtown is beautiful and hopping these days. The flowers are out, the flags are fluttering and it’s clear businesses are working to make downtown a more appealing place. Whether it’s Food Truck Fridays or street festivals, there’s always something happening during these summer months.

There’s room for improvement, however. Come fall, many storefronts board up and lights go out, especially in businesses which operate only seasonally. Contributing to this vacant image are buildings with cracking paint and swaths of cigarette butts that litter corners. Then there are the chronic inebriates, many of them homeless, who have nowhere to go and no reason to leave the downtown streets.

Downtown Juneau has a brighter spotlight on it these days since news organizations have begun following the wake of progress coming from a documentary commissioned by Senate Building owner Bruce Denton and created by Alaska Robotics owner Pat Race. The documentary paints the area in an unflattering light and has concerned business owners, officials and citizens taking action.

Fresh coats of paint and cleanup efforts are appreciated. But we need to go further, much further if we are to cultivate a vibrant downtown. We need a long-term plan to have more businesses open and succeed. One way we’ll get there is by increasing the number of places for people to live in the downtown area. We need to create a viable option for our homeless population, and we support the idea of supportive permanent housing, along the housing-first model. Our city goal should be to increase housing of all types and housing options through designating the downtown as a revitalization area. We can achieve this goal by providing incentives for those who own or are interested in owning property or buildings.

Hal Hart, Juneau’s community development director, said such tax incentives are already on the table. According to Hart, the city is looking at “sweetening” opportunities through property tax abatement — reducing taxes on a business for five, 10, or even 15 years if the building is restored to a certain quality. He also said the city is looking at increasing multi-use buildings — ones that house businesses, housing and parking — much like they did nearly a century ago.

It’s solutions like these that will make a difference and the city should finalize details as soon as possible and make sure the incentives include everything from individual family homes to apartment and condominium buildings.

Hand-in-hand with this tool to increase development should be rules that allow stepped building. This type of construction preserves street fronts with recognized historical value, but also allows additional floors in some areas set back from the street level.

Juneau should look to what other communities have done to remove structures that have become an eyesore or a hazard, especially buildings with owners uninterested in pursuing repairs. Offer a carrot — tax abatement; but if that doesn’t work, we think the city should condemn the buildings and underutilized properties, rebuild them, or build upon the vacant lots, and fill those buildings with people. Because people is what downtown needs.

Also, Juneau should pass a “limited dark” ordinance for downtown. Work with businesses in this area so buildings are open for 10 or 11 months of each year. They can be jewelry stores, rug and curio shops, to name only a few, during the cruise ship months, but in the off-season, let’s do something out of the box. Let’s make the space available to artists and musicians from across the state or the country, for instance. Providing something such as studios for artists to work in or as practice spaces for musicians would, in turn, provide opportunities for public engagement downtown. We understand an undertaking of this nature this is quite the challenge, but we feel it's worth the effort.

Let’s offer some carrots and sticks to the owners and lessees of these properties that target the results we want to see.

Now’s the time for stakeholders — all of them — to get together, to plan, to strategize and to act on a range of options and improvements that make downtown Juneau a vibrant area year-round.

Then, let’s see what happens.

• Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated some businesses in the downtown district are owned by cruise ship companies. 

• Empire Readers’ Council editorials are written by Roger Baty II, Mary Becker, Larry Gaffaney, Joseph Kahklen, Mike LeVine, Tim McLeod, Tom Rutecki and Amy Skilbred. Juneau Empire Director of Audience Abby Lowell serves as a moderator.

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