Empire editorial: A year begging for collaboration

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

Happy New Year, Juneau. You've earned it. Take a collective deep breath, and then it's back to work.

After a year of political squabbles and divisions, it's time for the capital city to unite with a vision of its future. 2004 was a year of ideas, some hotly debated. 2005 must be a year of collaboration to make the ideas real.

Of all the notions proposed in the last year, three stand out as having the most potential for lasting influence on the capital's future. They are a new capitol, a new look for the city's historic downtown and waterfront and a push for innovative and affordable housing. None will be easy to achieve, but all are vital to the city's growth and identity.

Mayor Bruce Botelho started the capitol construction on its way, and not surprisingly it faces age-old opposition from capital-move proponents even before the Legislature meets and begins to consider it. Not all agree that Juneau should always retain Alaska's seat of power, but statewide response to the initial proposal indicates widespread longing for a grander legislative hall and symbol of our state's democracy. Downtown Juneau, steeped in the Last Frontier's economic and political lore, is the place for such a statement. The capital's supporters must treat 2005 as a unique opportunity to show Alaska what could be. Convincing the state's power brokers that it's worth the investment is a challenge, but once the mayor's design team presents an inspiring image the proposal will seem more an opportunity than a sales pitch. Those in the Legislature and beyond who would embrace it must work to find a creative financing plan, and to broaden the mayor's effort to make this a statewide goal.

Just down the hill from where Alaska's capitol would rise is Juneau's waterfront, the object of debate and comprehensive planning in 2004. Now that a structure is in place to guide development, the Juneau Assembly, residents and merchants must collaborate to ensure that the document lives and enhances the city's livability. From the Douglas Bridge and the subport to the existing cruise docks stretches a gold mine of potential vibrancy. Juneau has been conflicted until now: Maximize downtown cruise ship tourism potential or protect this area for locals? Yet it is this nexus of interests that offers such possibility. It would be an irreversible mistake to simply add another downtown cruise dock and line the shores with tourism shops, walling off the water from the community. But a tasteful integration of local shops, eateries and, especially, public places with the tourist foot traffic that adds bustle to the summer is a worthy goal. The city must first make sure it builds an attractive gathering place for itself. Such a buzzing waterfront would effortlessly sell itself to visitors.

Finally, Juneau should spend this year building last year's housing brainstorms into concrete plans for construction. The city has begun a dialog about so-called clustered cottage housing for singles and smaller family units. Some builders and real estate experts have countered that what Juneau really needs is a commitment to more attached units, which tend to be cheaper. Both sides are right and should work together. It will take more than one design to supply affordable options on Juneau's limited lots, and it's time to provide guidance and incentives for a more affordable community.

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