My Turn: Juneau could save money by cutting Planning Commission

Posted: Monday, January 25, 2010

Let me take a page from Jonathan Swift and make a Modest Proposal for the city of Juneau's budget. How about we do away with our Planning Commission and Community Development Department? It would save lots of money, and we might even have a better town as a result.

Why? These two agencies present and enact master plans for the community, engaging us in endless hours of meetings and hearings aimed at sensible development that benefits the public. Then, those same agencies put the plans on a shelf and ignore them. Result: No adherence to a comprehensive plan and no long term pubic interest in what gets built and how it is done.

Let me give a few examples. When the downtown business community wanted more parking for their businesses, the planning commission said yes, despite the fact that this was not part of our plan for downtown. When the Alaska Mental Health Trust wanted to raise their revenues by building and renting out new office space on the downtown waterfront, the Planning Commission just asked "how high" and ignored city plans and waterfront height restrictions. Soon we should have a downtown parking space for every man, woman and child in Juneau, but our precious waterfront, our great scenic attraction, will have to be seen through and around concrete megaliths.

Now the city is putting out a request for proposals to examine four separate new parking structures, a proposal to build another 500-space parking garage downtown (RFP E 10-177), ostensibly to park the cars of state employees who are already parking downtown or taking public transit, ignoring the fact that current parking spaces go vacant because people either do not want to pay for them or because they are a few blocks from their destinations.

Meantime, no one in the Juneau Planning Commission is talking about transit systems that could keep cars from choking downtown and leave the waterfront free for people.

Our de facto borough standard is to snap at any project that offers more concrete and to forget what we want our city to look like. In our travels, the most engaging communities we have seen put aesthetics and open vistas, sea walks and waterfront retail above 80-foot tall office buildings and concrete parking structures. Prime space in Juneau is going to automobiles rather than to public needs such as museums, parks, and space for shops and restaurants.

The most attractive communities we have seen have vibrant downtowns as the result of good planning and adhering to the plan, rather than spending millions on concrete shelves for cars while tolerating haphazard construction and urban eyesores such as the large hole that has been in the center of downtown for years. The welcoming cities, the ones tourists and locals love to spend time in, put parking underground or on the peripheries, encourage public transit, are well lit, and encourage people to walk and look, stop and rest, and enjoy an environment designed for people.

Meantime, there is no master plan for bringing more businesses to Juneau, and no one has a plan for returning state employees relocated to Anchorage. Tourists like our community despite what downtown offers, not because of it. We are moving offices and building garages on the sliding deck of the Titanic, assuring that a few people get great office views with adjacent parking while the ship goes down.

Yes, we want to continue to be the capital city. Yes, we want to be hospitable to state government. But the answer is not to abandon our community development plans and a good quality of downtown life in exchange for the notion that we can be a vibrant capital city by providing more parking spaces and by ignoring good planning.

• Margo Waring is a Juneau resident.

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