Bright future ahead in Willoughby area

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Last week the City & Borough of Juneau (CBJ) Assembly heard from CBJ staff about the exciting possibilities the future holds for the area of downtown Juneau designated by planners as the Willoughby Land Use District. This parcel stretches from Gold Creek on the west and runs along West Willoughby Avenue before turning south at a 90-degree angle into Willoughby Avenue at the east end. Occupied by an eclectic mixture of parking lots and mostly older buildings with a variety of uses, these boundaries do not technically encompass the residential areas to the north of West Willoughby or the space formerly occupied by the Subport Building across Egan Drive, but a solid plan for the area must consider what will happen in these zones as well.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have in the past been and presently remain closely involved with many organizations housed in the Willoughby Land Use District, which I think of as west downtown. I served on the Capital Community Broadcasting Board for many years, and still spend a lot of time at the beloved KTOO building as a volunteer and member of the CoastAlaska Board. I was on the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Board for several years and am thrilled with the outstanding success of the transformation of the old National Guard Armory into the Juneau Arts & Culture Center (JACC). I served on the Juneau Performing Arts Center Commission, a CBJ panel that looked at long-term plans to build a new, state-of-the-art facility on the site where the JACC sits. I was also on the Friends of the Alaska State Museum Board, but without any of these prior reasons to care deeply about what happens in this little corner of our town, I’d still be enchanted by what we may do to ensure the best future for this unique property.

The new SLAM building will be the biggest and most impressive structure to go up in west downtown, and if you haven’t seen the plans, you ought to go to the State’s website and inspect them. This facility on the lot behind the current State Museum will be a world-class repository for Alaska’s cultural and historical treasures specially designed to be as user-friendly as possible. But there are no firm plans for other projects right now.

Most in need of replacement is the aging structure housing the Department of Public Safety across Whittier Street from the current State Museum. This facility has no intrinsic value, but keeping these State offices downtown is always a good idea. While there has been much effort put into planning a Performing Arts Center where the JACC sits, this will not happen until our local economy justifies the significant expense. In the meanwhile, the JACC has been beautifully retrofitted and is a vital and thriving facility, next door to the vintage Centennial Hall where so many important events occur. One of the JACC’s greatest successes is its integration into activities at Centennial, perhaps best exemplified by this January’s “Tuxes to Xtratufs” Inaugural Gala. As good as these two facilities are, in the long run they ought to be expanded, improved, and more closely integrated.

The most recent improvement seriously discussed was the new State office complex that Representative Cathy Mużoz worked so hard to make a reality in the last Legislature, situated across Egan Drive next to the Coast Guard complex. While this project didn’t survive the legislative process, the tremendous need for new Juneau office space for the Departments of Corrections, Fish & Game, and Labor has in no way abated. We either need to build on the spot envisioned by Representative Mużoz or find some other place in close proximity to downtown to ensure we’re serving as a hospitable Capital City.

The Willoughby District under consideration by CBJ planners also might feature housing priced at market rates as well as units subsidized so as to be more readily affordable. This is a worthy idea because the vibrancy and vitality of a community is directly enhanced when people are there at night and the week-end as well as during business hours. The Subport lot is a beautiful piece of waterfront property that would be a charming home for a marina or retail space, perhaps mixed with some higher-end housing units. It is, however, owned by the Mental Health Trust Authority which has a legal duty to maximize monetary returns for its beneficiaries.

Land ownership presents some of the greatest challenges to how to help west downtown achieve its vast potential. Questions about how to acquire land currently held by a diverse array of private owners won’t have easy answers, but defining the parameters of what we, as a community, wish to accomplish is a crucial first step.

Just over Telephone Hill from the Willoughby District is a clear example of how much we can accomplish as a community when we collectively decide to do so. The new parking garage and transit center are attractive and efficient additions to downtown, and the new cultural center planned by Sealaska where the Endicott Building used to stand will further improve the overall ambience of the neighborhood. Now is the time to think and talk about how to make west downtown better, so we can follow planning with action, and make the future bright.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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