Town hole: Prime lot sits idle since 2004 fire

Posted: Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Some Juneau residents who want downtown shopping, eating and parking to grow wonder why the vacant lot where the Skinner Building burned to the ground remains fallow nearly 19 months later.

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"What is taking so long?" said Tango Toli, a checker at the Juneau Drug Co. across the street. "The owners need to get parking in there now, or at least restaurants to bring more people around downtown."

Neither of the property's listed owners, Tom Huntington and Hugh Grant, returned repeated phone calls over the last two weeks to discuss their plans.

Grant became part owner in October 2004, after the fire. The lot at Front and Seward streets is valued at $568,300, according to the Juneau assessor's office.

The Skinner Building was a former hardware store divided and leased to commercial tenants, including several eateries and a manicure shop. It was torn down two weeks after an Aug. 15, 2004, fire that was started by workers patching the roof. The lot sits in the city's historic district.

"It doesn't look like much of a historic district anyway when there are fences around that giant empty space in town," Juneau-Douglas High School senior Maria Monagle said. "Parking would be convenient because when my friends and I go to the movies, or get something to eat, we have to deal with finding a spot and walking in bad weather."

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"Parking would be a waste of such a great spot," said Nina Wilson, assistant manager of the Ben Franklin Variety Store on Front Street. "We need some decent women's clothes in this town."

Wilson used to get her nails done at in the Skinner Building. She said the town lacks good shops. She flies to Seattle once a year to go clothes shopping, but would prefer to keep the money in town, she said.

"If they put in a decent clothing or shoe store I would be their biggest customer," Wilson said. "I would love to spend money on good clothes or shoes."

The 108-year-old building contained asbestos, once commonly used for fireproofing and insulation. Asbestos has been shown to cause cancer and the respiratory disease asbestosis.

The cleanup of the asbestos-contaminated debris pile was completed in December 2004, said John Pavitt, air compliance inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency. He said the waste was shipped to dumps in Oregon and Washington.

Although city officials hope something happens soon, it is out of their hands, they say.

"It is not really our job to tell people what to do with their property," City Manager Rod Swope said. "The only time we can go in and force activity is if the building or area poses a public risk or hazard."

"We can condemn or take action to correct it, but this property does not seem to pose any of these problems now."

A fast-food grill would make sense on the first floor of a new building, said Larry Spencer of Spencer Realty, a commercial leasing agent.

"I would put in some quality fast food downstairs, where many former businesses had success," Spencer said. "We need more ethnic food in town in addition to pizza."

The old building housed a Subway sandwich shop and the Dragon Inn Chinese restaurant, both since relocated.

"Upstairs saw a bit slower business, so I would have apartments there," Spencer said.

Marie Darlin, a member of the city's Historic Resources Advisory Committee, said she is growing impatient with the lack of development on the site. The committee comprises seven members of the community, appointed by the Assembly.

"I am getting a little tired of looking at a hole in the ground," Darlin said. "This has been a practical space over the years and always a busy corner."

In general all alterations to existing structures should be performed so as to preserve the historical and architectural character of Juneau's downtown historic district, according to the city's requirements for historic neighborhoods. The distinguishing original qualities or character of a building, structure, or site and its environment shall not be destroyed. The removal or alteration of any historic material or destruction of architectural features should be avoided when possible.

Juneau Assembly member Randy Wanamaker said the spot is a prime piece of land "just sitting there." He said the property has light commercial and retail potential.

"I am not sure why nothing is being done. It is a missed opportunity for a viable business in a good part of the community," Wanamaker said. "Someone is missing a good opportunity to get back into business."

Mayor Bruce Botelho said he cannot envision much being done at the site for at least a year, although it is up the owners. He said they have not disclosed their intentions to him.

"It must meet the historic district standards, which was the result of planning processes undertaken many years ago," Botelho said. "Really that is the extent of the city's involvement at this point.

Archaeologist Susan Marvin, who is the Historic Committee's vice chairwoman, said her group would be contacted immediately after the city received some "word, or plans" from a potential developer.

"It is not really our business what is inside, but rather that it is compatible to the area," Marvin said.

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