Empire editorial: Subport area offers chance for new waterfront destination

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008

Juneau has a rare opportunity sitting on its downtown waterfront.

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With the former subport warehouse recently demolished on the land off Egan Drive near the Alaska State Museum, all that's left is a concrete slab and stacks of timber frames - and thousands of square feet in which to reshape the city's waterfront.

The giant open space offers the perfect chance to create an area that breathes new energy into the downtown cultural, business and nightlife scenes. Juneau needs to follow the paths of cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore, which have found ways to refurbish their waterfronts in ways that serve the local population well while appealing to out-of-town visitors.

What we don't want is the subport area to house shops and businesses that shut down for more than half the year. It would be a shame for this prime waterfront real estate in the heart of downtown to become yet another seasonal wasteland of boarded-up tourist shops, like that on South Franklin Street.

But with careful planning and coordination between the city and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which owns the land, there's no reason this area can't enrich the lives of locals while being yet another attraction in one of Alaska's most visited cities.

The city has already made a considerable effort in envisioning how this area could be renovated, with details in its 2003 long-range waterfront plan. Reshaping the subport area is the most ambitious part of the city's plan.

With this blueprint, the subport area would be transformed into a thriving urban neighborhood with offices, entertainment, fish and whole-food markets, hotels and retail shops. Just northwest of the subport property would be a new marina harboring 45 vessels 50 to 60 feet long and more than 60 smaller boats. Also planned is an adjacent Gold Creek Waterfront Park.

Building heights would be limited to no more than two or three stories, and waterfront views would be preserved.

To strengthen the area culturally, the plan calls for a 65,000-square-foot expansion of the Alaska State Museum and an addition to Centennial Hall for concerts, theater and performing arts.

While the Mental Health Trust Authority has not announced any plans to develop the subport site, it's not too soon for city and business leaders to start working toward reshaping this area.

Particularly if historic Merchants Wharf is torn down, as many fear it will be because of the high cost of refurbishing the decaying building, plans need to be made for other development efforts that will keep the downtown waterfront strong.

The subport area offers the city its best chance for a vital urban district that will enrich the lives of locals and make Juneau even more memorable for visitors.

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