City seeks Merchants Wharf deal

Seawalk, expansion of Marine Park would mean the building has to go

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005

It could be just a matter of time until Juneau's oldest waterfront landmark sinks into history itself.

For the past eight months, owners of Merchants Wharf have been negotiating with the city to sell the property, meeting most recently on Friday. The city is interested in acquiring the land to expand Marine Park and build a seawalk that connects Juneau's waterfront.

"They have a walkway on the dock but it is not quite a public access," said Assembly member Stan Ridgeway, a member of the city's Assembly Waterfront Committee. "The building owners can close it off. We want a continuous seawalk" from the Douglas Bridge to the South Franklin Dock.

"The only concern I have is the historical perspective of the building," Ridgeway said. "I am not sure if we can salvage part of the building to build something that is a memorial of the wharf."

Although Juneau's Long-range Waterfront Plan calls for retaining a portion of Merchants Wharf and creating an aviation history center, City Manager Rod Swope said he would ask the owners to tear down the building as part of the agreement.

Swope said the city doesn't want the 66-year-old structure intact for exactly the same reason that the owners don't want it.

"The building is old. The owners put in a lot of money to repair it," Swope said. "We don't want the building."

Daniel Glidman, property manager of Merchants Wharf for 18 years, said rents from the wharf's 25 tenants are barely enough to cover the maintenance.

"The building has outlived its economic life. We just have been nurturing it all along," Glidman said. "The building doesn't make any money and it never has."

Despite its condition, the property is expensive. The latest assessment of the building and the parking lot came back at $6.4 million; the land alone is worth $3 million.

Tony Tengs, tenant-owner of Chilkat Cone Kitchen ice cream, said the city should consider the sales tax, property tax and jobs it would lose if it razes the wharf. The building's anchor restaurants, Hangar on the Wharf and Pizzeria Roma, employ about 70 people, more than half of them working full-time.

Neither the city nor the owners know if or when they will finalize the sale, but the proposal already upsets some tenants and city residents.

Lynn Strauss, who has owned an antique shop at Merchants Wharf for seven years, said the building is as much a part of Juneau's history as is the Governor's Mansion.

"I don't care who takes it over, as long as it is preserved," said Strauss, owner of Deja Vu Antiques.

Alma Harris, a board member of Gastineau Channel Historical Society, said the city should restore Merchants Wharf, which was erected in 1932 to store planes.

"Just imagine how that hangar in the early days changed the life of Alaska and Juneau," said Harris, who has lived here since 1973. "They can incorporate the seawalk without tearing down the building."

"Alaska has a poor history of persevering," Harris said. "Someday we will be very sorry that we don't have things left."

But some regular customers of Merchants Wharf think tearing down the building might not be a bad idea.

"This is a run-down building," said Barbara Kelly-Page, who patronizes businesses at the wharf at least once a week. "Architectually, it is not a pretty building. It looks like it was put together without much thought."

The blue rectangular box structure overlooking Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island has been a testament to Juneau's waterfront aviation history.

Standing on old pilings, it was a floatplane hangar for more than 35 years, serving the first generation of Alaska pilots. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the wharf was bustling with aviation, rats under the hangar and pilots always on the move. The seadrome operations at the hangar ended in 1968 when Alaska Airlines bought Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airlines.

Even if the building now houses five eateries, a hair salon and various shops, Merchants Wharf retains the ambience of the old days.

Hangar on the Wharf is decorated with old model planes. Pictures of Alaska's early pilots such as Bob Ellis and Shell Simmons adorn the walls of the common hallway. Wings of Alaska operates floatplanes from below the wharf in the summer.

The wharf has evolved into an arts, entertainment and culinary center. Customers can savor 12 Russian dumplings for $5 at Pel' Meni, or a wild Alaska salmon steak at the Hangar for $15. The Hangar Ballroom is a popular venue, hosting Juneau Chamber of Commerce lunches and live performances such as Perseverance Theatre's recent play, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." State workers take their lunch breaks on the dock while youngsters cruise through carrying their skateboards.

The shops in the wharf are a neighborhood of their own.

When they are not busy, business owners stand in the hallway and chat with one another. Over the years, they have experienced births, divorces and deaths together. Even with the looming sale of the building, merchants say they cannot find a better property manager than Glidman.

"I count him as a friend," said Becky Bryant, who has owned a gift shop at Merchants Wharf since the 1980s. "He has made a point of coming to see every one of us, telling us what is going on."

Bryant, owner of the Rufus K Page shop, said she likes the building's relaxed environment.

"This is just a nice, warm building to do business in," Bryant said. "We have a fantastic view. We see whales outside my window. We have some great restaurants. We never go hungry."

Management of Merchants Wharf is still evaluating whether to build a smaller center on the adjacent parking lot. "There wouldn't be enough room for all the existing tenants," Glidman said. "Some of them would be displaced."

Reecia Wilson, owner of the building's Hangar on the Wharf and Pizzeria Roma restaurants, said although she might move her business into the new building, she still hopes the city or wharf management can find a way to restore it.

"We spent family lifetime savings developing a business from nothing," said Wilson, whose Juneau restaurants also include Twisted Fish. "When we rebuilt this place, you could see water underneath. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it."

Bryant said she would love to move Rufus K Page into the new building but she is worried that she wouldn't be able to afford a possibly higher rent.

Strauss, on the other hand, said she would just close her antique shop if Merchants Wharf is gone.

"I put my own personality into the store," Strauss said. "It will never come out as this one now."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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