More voices join in Wharf/Park project debate

Empire editorial

Posted: Tuesday, April 09, 2002

The Assembly chambers were filled to overflowing last night with citizens primarily interested in the Alaska Steamship Wharf/Marine Park project. The dialogue was civil and productive with many good ideas surfacing throughout the discussion. Nearly 40 people testified with the yea sayers and naysayers in an even balance with a half-dozen testifiers taking a moderate to favorable position on the project depending upon whether their specific suggestions would be included in the final concept.

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The key concerns raised by those opposed to the improvements center on the cost of the improvements, loss of space for youth activities such as skateboarding and hackysack, loss of viewable tidewater, degradation of a favorite downtown lunch spot, and lack of justification to use the waterfront as a place to stage buses. One detractor observed that the waterfront project was over-designed and needed to be more organic.

The promoters of the improvements cited relief for traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, improved efficiency in shuttling tourists to shoreside activities, and added green space. Some testified that the plan would draw tourists and business opportunity further up the waterfront and upland of the waterfront. The convertible nature of the design was praised and acknowledgment was given to the creativity and hard work contributed by city staff and elected officials.

Some noteworthy suggestions surfaced. A number of people from both camps, recognizing the "gateway" aspect of the project, mentioned the need to make a strong statement to visitors and locals alike that speaks to Juneau's rich Native heritage. Speaking for the Native community, John Martin Sr. observed "many visitors come to Southeast Alaska under the assumption that all Natives are Eskimos in Alaska."

The proposed plaza at the Wharf/Park area would be an ideal place to exhibit a Tlingit landmark and show off our vibrant Native culture. Other suggestions pointed to the cultural and intrinsic value that this important section of the waterfront could convey if it were a place were Native and non-Native artists and performers could ply their talents. Key West is a tourist seaport with such a plaza, where street performers and artists exhibit their talents for tourists and locals to enjoy every evening.

Juneau has an opportunity to create a place in the middle of its waterfront to celebrate its personality and history in a positive way. The capital city of Alaska should be a welcoming place.

Lost in the discussion last night was the reality that Juneau is first and foremost a seaport. Juneau has weathered the loss of mining and timber, and its status as a commercial port is in its death throes. But Juneau can still call itself a seaport thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard and tourism.

As such, seaports are busy places. The wharf is a transit point where people disembark and embark. The Alaska Steamship Wharf was in its time an important terminus in a busy harbor, long before Juneau International Airport, as we know it existed.

The wharf/park project, once again, deals with two distinctly different areas. The Alaska Steamship Wharf area is being improved to better handle passenger transit and reduce traffic congestion.

Decking over the opening that exists there now will result in the loss of a small patch of viewable tidewater. However, there is a project underway to reclaim the tidewater area at the mouth of Gold Creek, which would provide similar access. Assemblyman Marc Wheeler raised a chuckle when he suggested that the view of the tidewater could be preserved if the deck over could be done in some sort of transparent material.

The other segment of the plan, the Marine Park area, is gaining 6,000 square feet of green space and will be transformed into a significantly more attractive, useable space. The concept is still being formed and more can be done to improve the Marine Park area. This is the time to gather ideas.

Regarding the cost of the project, the cruise ship industry will carry the lion's share.

It is a bit selfish and narrow-minded to believe that this very important space should be claimed as the exclusive domain of a few not to be shared with those who visit our community and many others who live in Juneau and would come downtown if they had a reason. Is it possible that local citizens might actually enjoy looking at visiting ships and interacting with people from other places?

Enriching the ambiance, the cultural experience and the utility of our waterfront will draw people from all of Juneau's neighborhoods downtown through the year. Certainly, more activities for Juneau's youth are sorely needed and should be accommodated in any downtown park plan.

Many who spoke last night, including some Assembly members, voiced the need to step back and take a long view of this project in the context of the long-range plan. The wharf/park project has been under study for years and the time has come to move on.

A long-range waterfront plan could easily take 10 years or longer to come to fruition. A clear direction for the wharf/park project now would set the stage for wonderful things to happen in a collaborative way on Juneau's waterfront. The long view should include more and bigger parks and green space.

Next Monday the Assembly will make the important decision whether to take action or once again seek the comfort of inaction.

Don Smith


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