Keys to revitalizing downtown Juneau

My turn

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2001

Many long term residents have noticed the depressing decline of locally-oriented businesses downtown. Even on Seward Street, one of the last vestiges of what used to be a thriving local business area, empty storefronts appear every couple of months and often stay empty for some time. Here are some suggestions that can help turn it around:

1) Give people a reason to come downtown.

We must build attractions that draw Juneauites downtown for recreation and for shopping. This must be done project by project. Possibilities include a performing arts center with a regular schedule of attractions, an indoor children's play area and activity/learning center, and much more.

2) Re-populate downtown.

To make a business area viable, you need to have enough people circulating to help businesses prosper. At one time, nearly every building downtown had apartments upstairs. In my time, I've seen the closing of the Decker Apartments, the Gross 20th Century Apartments, the Gross Building Apartments, the apartment where the DEC Building now stands and the many houses downtown that have been turned into office space. We need to build more good housing in our civic center and offer incentives to developers to reclaim our urban residential core.

3) Deal with the automobile problem.

We should start to think of the "parking" problem instead as an "automobile" problem. We cannot solve our automobile problem simply by building new parking spaces. This was proven by the monolith that presently blights our waterfront and, given the present drift of the Areawide Transportation Plan, may be proven again with a second monolith wrapped around Telephone Hill. Another parking garage will do nothing to revitalize downtown.

The vast majority of the automobile problem downtown is created by people who commute to town alone and warehouse their cars for eight hours in an inadequate mix of parking garages, lots and residential streets. We need to give these people a convenient alternative, such as a Park and Ride at the Valley malls, with express buses every 15 minutes during rush hour. Such a service could be free, paid for by revenues from eight-hour parking spaces downtown. By reducing demand with carpooling and other such measures, we can free up spaces for shorter-term parking. There are many other inexpensive auto management tools used successfully in other cities similar to Juneau. Unlike a parking garage, they cost little. Juneau's linear layout and concentrated workplaces makes us uniquely suited to these solutions.

4) Stop urban sprawl by changing zoning laws.

Urban sprawl destroys downtown cores, degrades community in general and is bad for the environment. It is also very expensive: Note the huge subsidies required to bring water and sewer to places like Bonnie Brae and out the road. Invariably, the taxpayers get stuck footing the bill.

Urban sprawl is caused by a combination of automobile technology and low-density zoning. Low-density housing spreads things out to where it is extremely inconvenient to walk anywhere. By making cars indispensable, it eliminates neighborhood businesses and increases traffic. That's one reason why we're always trying to solve new traffic flow problems in the Valley.

We can address this problem by changing our outdated zoning laws and by "in-filling." Eliminating new low-density housing can help make our suburban communities more compact and robust. By mixing commercial businesses and offices with residential housing, we enable people to walk to work or to the store. We should begin surrounding our present malls and box stores with high-density residential housing within easy walking distance. We also need a moratorium on new subdivisions outside our present water and sewer systems.

Developers must work with the existing rules. Until we change those rules, their hands are tied no matter how good their intentions are. Unfortunately, there is a lot of inertia. That's why so much of the new Areawide Transportation Plan is oriented toward new overpasses for Egan Drive and a new parking garage, measures that ultimately do little to actually improve our city or our transportation situation.

A fresh, integrated look at our zoning laws and our Areawide Transportation Plan is the perfect place to build a better community.

Stuart Cohen is a writer and an 18-year resident of Juneau.

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