Empire editorial: Wharf is waterfront's anchor, not its albatross

Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2005

As the city of Juneau ventures to buy and destroy one of its most distinguishing and still-vibrant landmarks, a troubling picture of its waterfront plan emerges.

It is the stuff of postcards - tourists out for a stroll on an otherwise vacant seawalk, enjoying an unimpeded view of the ocean channel and the cruise ships that brought them, and perhaps gazing at a mini-museum of Alaska's seaplane history. Here's a suggested plaque for the proposed museum and park that would replace Merchants Wharf: "Juneau residents used to come here too."

Juneau's former gateway and current hub of waterfront dining and nightlife is getting old, it's true. In one form or another it has clung to its pilings since the Great Depression, and it is not surprising that the owner should be awash in maintenance bills and wanting to sell. But the city's apparent eagerness to speed the wharf's demise and replace it with open space and a small seaplane museum is counterproductive to the cause of building a community.

Many will rise to the wharf's defense on historic principles. It is the seaside building that ushered in a frontier territory's aviation era, connecting us to Seattle and beyond. And for those who first came to Juneau by ferries that docked downtown, the big blue building on stilts was second only to the abandoned hillside Alaska-Juneau gold mine for illustrating the cityscape. Truly, the building is deserving of protection under federal historic preservation guidelines.

But for modern Juneau, what is even more important than a sense of history is an abiding reason to gather by the sea. Merchants Wharf, with its rustic planked hall and its incomparable proximity to the ocean that defines this city, is a popular place to eat, to drink, to get a haircut, to buy trinkets or jewelry, to meet friends, to see a play or live music. Where else in Juneau can one go for a drink with friends and sit in a picture window or on the dock itself watching the sun set while floatplanes buzz in and out or, in season, while massive cruise ships maneuver overhead? Throughout the year Juneau residents walk to the wharf for a bite to eat, or to watch a broadcast sporting event, or to hear a jazz combo. On any given night hundreds of city residents enjoy the building and its tenants. Following them is the breakfast crowd.

This is the sort of thing Juneau - and particularly its walkable downtown - needs to build on, not push aside. A seaside walkway and a smaller building focused on aviation history would be nice for visitors, but few residents would have reason to go there unless relatives are in town.

As for the seawalk: It's a good idea. All of the area around Marine Park and Merchants Wharf and, with planning, the subport beyond it should be accessible to foot traffic. But there should be a reason to walk there beyond simply taking in the view of Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island. In fact, any future development in the subport should add cultural and commercial enticements to visitors and residents alike, in addition to waterfront public access. City officials' fear that Merchants Wharf could close its waterfront walkway at any time should not drive this decision. Surely something short of demolition is possible, whether it's an easement or an extension on or below the dock.

If the maintenance bill is too high to make the wharf profitable as is, it would seem that some shoring up is in order. The city should explore its options for making that happen before it does anything else with the waterfront.

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