An urban opportunity in our own back yard

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Urban renewal may sound like a term from Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, something that happens when big Eastern cities awaken one day to find that their centers have decayed, their businesses have followed workers to the suburbs, that recovery cannot happen overnight and that there's not enough money to do it anyhow.

If institutions, governments, cities - even families - temporarily get off track, what causes the awakening? Sometimes it's a realization that something wonderful has been lost, that something we always took for granted is gone.

For all the beauty of Auke Bay, the neighborhood feel of the Mendenhall Valley and the charm of Douglas, the heart of Juneau remains downtown with its mix of housing, churches, museums, businesses, government, restaurants, docks and tourist attractions from sea level to the hillsides.

Those elements attract some people like a magnet, if only for a taste before scurrying over the bridge or out Egan Drive to the wide open spaces, including parking spaces. Downtown is not for everybody, but it is as vital to Juneau's future as it was to our past.

The way to put the future in jeopardy is to ignore the signs of slippage, decay and congestion. One of America's success stories in the last 30 years has been the reversal of urban rot in historic cities such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Denver and even New York, which is cleaner and safer - more vibrant - today than it had been since well before LBJ.

For downtown Juneau's vibrancy to be protected and restored, we have to do what can be done - as distinct from trying to fix everything at once with a grand program of renewal. Yes, let's have a master vision for the future, but in the meantime, let's look at little things, like the feasibility of renovating the 61-year-old Gross 20th Century building on Front Street.

The building has 23 apartments that have gone to seed, are unoccupied and presumably are not up to code. Just figuring out whether the building and its apartments can be rehabilitated and to get a hint of the price will cost $20,000. But if the answer was yes and the price was not astronomical, then the feasibility study represents money well spent.

Housing First, Juneau Housing Trust and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council have asked the Juneau Assembly for $10,000 in matching funds - half the cost of the study.

This is an opportunity not to be missed. The price is right. We encourage the Assembly to take the next step.

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