Empire editorial: A diverse vision for Juneau's waterfront

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

Juneau's character is shaped as much by its waterfront as it is by its status as the state capital. In fact, Juneau has been a seaport longer than it has been a capital.

In the first three-quarters of a century, the port of Juneau served as a maritime transit center for floatplanes, steamships, military vessels, barges and fishing boats of all types. Most of the cargo shipped out of town consisted of the product of Juneau's mines and fish processing plants.

Cargo entering the busy port included foodstuffs, building materials, merchandise, fuel, equipment and various and sundry other items normally shipped overland elsewhere.

Along with living quarters, saloons and brothels, the waterfront was populated by cold storage buildings, marine supply outlets, fuel tanks, warehouses, fish processing facilities, various military installations and a variety of other structures.

In the early '70s, the waterfront was in a real state of decline with dingy, dilapidated buildings and rotting docks. The central business district was dying and South Franklin was a seedy, risky place to be at night. Long-time locals still recall the unique "atmosphere" that permeated the waterfront area.

In the years that followed, tourism began to grow and the commerce it fostered fueled a revitalization of the downtown area that continues today. The blighted areas of the waterfront have been largely replaced by modern offices, hotels, apartments, shops, restaurants, government buildings, a sightseeing tram, upgraded docks, and a parking garage and library among other structures. Across the channel, the Douglas waterfront has experienced a similar revitalization.

While not everyone is happy with the way downtown has evolved, a reasonably healthy balance between growth and quality of life has existed over the past 25 years.

The potential for Juneau's waterfront finally has taken center stage in the community's long-term comprehensive plan. Juneau's downtown waterfront is defined as the area stretching from the Douglas Bridge to the rock dump.

Juneau's Port Development Committee is overseeing an ambitious effort to produce a long-range waterfront development plan. The Florida consulting firm of Bermello Ajamil and Partners has been hired to guide the process that will shape the final plan.

The primary goals of the development plan as articulated by the city's consultant call for improvements that enhance quality of life, strengthen tourism offerings, and add diversity to downtown retail, entertainment, residential and service activities. Also included in the goals are enhancements to Juneau's image and attractiveness for investment.

Certainly, the goal of "enhancing the quality of life" has generated most dialogue.

The consultant's explanation of this goal reads: "The plan must meet the needs and aspirations of the community, promote year-round vitality of downtown, address traffic congestion issues and maintain the walkable nature of the downtown area. Importantly, the plan needs to effectively balance community enjoyment of the water's edge with the day-to-day demands of Juneau's working waterfront."

The planning effort now underway is an opportunity to set a direction for the waterfront that can meet the greatest possible range of expectations. The course Juneau's waterfront development follows for the next 20 years will be greatly influenced by those who submit written comments and show up to participate in the public workshops and hearings. Public workshops and hearings have taken place and more are scheduled.

The workshops held to date have given residents the opportunity to vocalize their personal priorities. Participants were separated into groups to discuss public access and recreation, maritime port activities, cultural and historical heritage, and the relationship between downtown businesses and the waterfront.

It is essential that the plan also recognizes all current waterfront uses and that it protects those pockets of Juneau's working waterfront. It is also important to note the area designated for development is a patchwork of public and private holdings.

All participants in the process must recognize that business and industry already have a large investment in the waterfront, and therefore, have a rightful place in the collaborative process of shaping a responsible vision for the future.

A crowded waterfront configured to look like an upscale California seaside development project will not work for Juneau and it will not work for investors.

The CBJ docks and harbors department has a great deal of financial resources available to be invested in the harbors and waterfront. The subport redevelopment plan is another component of the comprehensive waterfront development plan gaining momentum.

The vision for the future can include a balance between growth and quality of life. The vision can include significantly more green space, a seawalk, and boost Juneau's image as a center of culture, showcasing its music, theater, folk and art festivals, and native and ethnic heritage.

The only way these ideals can be nurtured and supported is by the coexistence of healthy business development that preserves Juneau's unique character and image.

Juneau is first and foremost a seaport. It should be a world class seaport that the entire community can enjoy.

The waterfront development plan can be accessed on the Internet at: www.juneau.lib.ak.us and www.juneauwaterfrontplan.com. The details and progress of the plan are continually updated on the Web site. More workshops are scheduled for June 16-20.

The Preliminary Waterfront Concept and Master Plan will be presented July 7-11, and the final plan will be submitted in late October. Do your part by participating in shaping the vision.

Don Smith



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