My Turn: Until more locals live downtown, there won't be a deeper community

Posted: Monday, January 25, 2010

I hope that Art Sutch's store break-ins and his recent letter to the editor spark a meaningful discussion and some action regarding the future of downtown. And I hope he will be part of the discussion and action.

I am one of many here in Juneau who love what downtown used to be and have hope we can reclaim some of the vitality and energy that has been lost. Letters by Virginia Breeze and Paulette Simpson indicate that others are passionate about Juneau's lost downtown as well. Instead of blaming, which divides us, why not see what consensus we can muster and what solutions flow from understanding the dynamics at work.

Juneau has three seats of government, not just the state offices and Legislature. If you add in all the state offices now in apartment buildings around the Legislature, the spill-over of attorney's offices and lobbyists above the Legislative buildings and down Main and Seward Streets, where are the people left to walk the streets after 5 p.m. or on weekends?

How many people live on South Franklin Street south of Front Street? A few floors of the Marine View Apartments are left after the city took over lower floors. Gastineau Avenue apartments and homes are about all the housing left downtown until you get to Thane. All of South Franklin Street below Front Street is now a virtual dead zone in winter when the cruise ships leave town. The only people on South Franklin after hours or on weekends are the folks from the bars that still stay open there.

In summer, most local residents avoid the downtown because the flood of tourists discourages them but also because the businesses that are there do not cater to local needs. Until locals live downtown, there probably won't be many small local stores, except bars and restaurants who draw from the wider borough for their customers. And now that big box stores are in almost every neighborhood, where is the need?

How many stores are there in Douglas, in spite of all the condos and apartments that have been built from the city of Douglas to the Juneau-Douglas Bridge? But the streets of Douglas are still full of people walking, riding bikes and socializing on the street. Why? Because they live there.

What could happen to make Juneau downtown a more livable, vibrant place in both summer and winter?

First, plan for and provide incentives for housing in the downtown core. What about the empty space on Front Street? It could be a handsome apartment building for young professionals and seniors who want a more urban lifestyle. Why not encourage the transformation of vacated state buildings into apartment complexes?

Outside the downtown district, higher rise apartments could be built, if the city were to provide sufficient incentives to attract builders to these projects. Why not encourage all new development and renovations downtown to create space for apartments and small businesses? A few developers are doing this, but more needs to be done to have a meaningful impact.

What we need is an inventory of housing in the downtown area - now soon to be computed once the results of the 2010 census are available. The Community Forum last year provided excellent information about what Juneau residents think about their community and ideas for its future revitalization. Who is working with this information, digging out the nuggets and seeking to move forward with the vision? Why couldn't a committee of volunteers undertake this as a priority? Why wait for the city to do it all?

These are a few ideas. I welcome others. My email is The more we talk about solutions to our downtown's death, the more we build on a better future.

• Marsha Bennett is a Juneau resident.

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