Renovating downtown landmark considered

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

Housing First, Juneau Housing Trust and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council are exploring the possibility of buying and renovating the 20th Century Theater and apartment building on Front Street.

The groups are seeking $10,000 in matching funds from the city's housing fund for a $20,000 feasibility study. Juneau Assembly members this week referred the issue to their Lands Committee.

The building has 23 apartments that last were occupied in the mid-1980s, Gross-Alaska President Dorain Gross said. Construction on the seven-story building was finished in 1940. A penthouse on the top floor is occupied. The building also houses the 20th Century Theatre.

Housing Trust President Stephen Sorensen said the building could be used for affordable housing and performing arts space. A feasibility study would give the organizations an idea of what it would cost to bring the apartments up to code, he said.

"The biggest issue is habitability. What would it cost to bring it up to current standards?" he said.

Sorensen said the groups have discussed the project with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the agencies have indicated a willingness to work with the groups. Additionally, funding for reconstructing or rebuilding a historic structure might be available, he said.


Betsy Longenbaugh, Housing Trust and Housing First administrator, said the project could combine performing art and commercial space with condos and rental units.

"There are funding sources for this kind of renovation that don't exist for a stand-alone, affordable-housing project," she said. "This is an opportunity to create affordable housing and make an impact on the downtown community."

Other people have been interested in purchasing the building over the years but no offers are on the table, Gross said. The only limit on a sale would be a noncompetition clause, by which a purchaser would agree not to operate a movie theater that would contend with Gross-Alaska, she said.

The company has plans to build a new movie theater near Salmon Creek on Channel Drive when the economics of Juneau allow, Gross said.

Lisle Hebert, who has been a part of discussions about the project, is interested in reviving Juneau's downtown. Enthusiasm for the project is running high, he said.

"Housing (downtown) has been taken over by offices and more and more people have moved out to the valley," he said. "Downtown will never flourish until there are people living there again."

The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council is pursuing a separate feasibility study for a performing arts center in Juneau. The 20th Century building likely would fit into the research, but the space might be limited for some activities, Executive Director Sybil Davis said. The council supports the idea of keeping downtown alive, she said.

"A consideration that is acute for me personally is that this is not a performing arts center and it can't be a performing arts center. It can be an extremely viable, vibrant venue for many existing arts groups," she said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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