On a 3-3 vote Monday night, the Juneau Assembly turned down an appeal of a conditional use permit granted to a developer who wants to put up a retail building that will be cut into the base of a steep and unstable hill downtown.
Some neighbors fear vibrations from construction will bring down the whole slope. But the developers, H&H Management of Anchorage, said the project was approved by engineers and would create a safer condition than now exists.
An appeal requires five assembly votes to pass. Last year, the assembly turned down a similar appeal of an earlier permit.
The city permit allows the company to build a two-story retail and office or apartment building at 401 S. Franklin St., next to the Carrol Way stairs.
"My life is in danger. I am terrified," Page Bridges, who lives in a rented house diagonally above the project, told the assembly.
Other nearby business and apartment owners and residents have told the city they were concerned about a landslide.
The Juneau Planning Commission failed to meet the city code's requirement to minimize the danger to people and property, argued Douglas Mertz, attorney for the five appellants.
The property is in a city-designated severe hazard area. The slope itself is the debris from pre-1880 slides, engineers said. A large landslide crushed buildings and killed people in the area in 1936.
A much smaller slide happened in 1997 while sheet piling was driven for a nearby retail building on South Franklin. The slide partly undermined a house diagonally above it, and left the hillside with cracks.
Mertz said the commission disregarded recommendations by the company's own engineers that sheet piling, which will be used as a temporary retaining wall, was less safe than a type called H-piling.
The original plan approved by city engineers and the planning commission was for H-pilings, which require fewer piles and the gradual clearing away of soil as timber strips are placed between the piles. But a revised permit allowed sheet piles, which are sheets of thick metal, to be driven into the uncut slope.
Engineer John Cooper, who prepared a report for the appellants, said in an interview that putting in H-piling would cause a lot less vibration than driving in sheet piling.
"That's the difference between a car and a 10-ton dump truck. There's massive difference," he said.
The developer's engineering report, by R&M Engineering, doesn't specify the type of piling. But it said cut slopes should be braced by temporary retaining structures while a permanent retaining wall is built.
As approved by the city, the project calls for the quicker method of driving sheet piling into the uncut slope. Then the earth in front of the piling would be removed and a concrete wall would be built. Murray Walsh, a consultant to the developer, said an expert has reviewed the plan. The concrete wall would make the slope safer than it now is, he added.
The R&M report refers only to risks to two houses immediately above the project. Walsh said the developers have assumed that risk by offering to buy the houses or put money in escrow for that purpose. The homeowners have agreed.
Assembly member Jim Powell, who voted against the appeal, said it's legal to build in the hazard area and the planning commission followed its procedures, which is one of the standards of reviewing an appeal.
"It looked like there was a lot of information they were doing as much as they could as far as engineering," he added.
Bridges said today the appellants will continue to work with engineer Cooper throughout the permitting process, and if necessary, seek a court injunction to stop it. The project still needs grading and building permits.
"This project is so demonstrably dangerous that I don't see it being built," she said.