Waterfront of the future

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Here's an idea.

Why don't we meet at the downtown Waterfront Center tonight? We can have dinner at that new five-star restaurant by the Gold Creek marina, then take the covered walkway to the new city museum or the art exhibit in the new wing of Centennial Hall.

Or, if you prefer, we can just grab a coffee at Starbucks and go for a walk in the new park.

In 20 years or so, such plans might not seem so far-fetched. Barb Sheinberg of Sheinberg Associates and Paul Voelckers of Minch Ritter Voelckers Architects, both Juneau firms, have been contracted by the Alaska Mental Health Trust to design such a waterfront concept. They've labeled it the Subport Waterfront Concept Plan.

 

"This is a work in progress," Sheinberg said. "It's a plan. That doesn't mean it's going to happen."

"It's conceptual," Voelckers echoed. " We're building a diagram for people to discuss in a public forum."

The Alaska Mental Health Trust owns several key parcels of land in the area to be developed, which extends roughly from Merchant's Wharf to Gold Creek.

Alison Smith, senior resource manager at the Alaska Mental Health Trust Office in Anchorage, said after a series of court battles to determine land ownership, the trust office is now ready to trade, sell or lease the property.

 

But the trust isn't the only player. Land owned by the city, state and federal governments, and privately held lands are all included in the mix. Goldbelt and the city's harbor board also are actively involved.

The plan is a comprehensive one, addressing many of downtown Juneau's needs.

"There's a sense of desperation that downtown is just hanging on," Voelckers said. "At the planning level, there's a concern we need some strong steps to keep downtown vital."

The plan calls for a vastly expanded Centennial Hall complex, made possible by the eventual relocation of the Army National Guard.

"If we had more break-out rooms in the convention center, we could bring more revenue into town," Sheinberg said.

On Willoughby Avenue a transit center with parking for 400 vehicles is planned next to the State Office Building, where the archives and records building currently sits.

"Traffic studies show we're about 700 (parking) spots short in the downtown area," Voelckers said.

Dave Palmer, Juneau city manager, said the city is already looking at such plans.

"We will be working on a transit center plan," he said. "That would be a base of operations for transit buses, or it could be a parking lot with buses. We're trying to keep the Capital Transit buses from going down the water line."

The subport plan also calls for a covered walkway to extend from the new parking garage and Centennial Hall to the waterfront. There, the walkway will split south along the waterfront to Merchant's Wharf and north to the Coast Guard facilities.

"We need improved ways for pedestrians to get around," Sheinberg said.

Developments along that stretch may include an all-purpose building that would house a new visitors center, city museum and city offices. The strip also could include retail and commercial buildings and a new marine park sandwiched by two condominium complexes.

"Three- or four-story buildings on the waterfront," Sheinberg said of the developments. "Small enough that we don't obscure the open space."

The walkway will continue, uncovered, to a restaurant that sits at the end of a new marina for mid-sized day boats. It also will snake through the new marine park, run under Egan Drive, and continue past a renovated complex holding the state museum, records center and archives.

"The first thing I read into this is it's too big to consider," city manager Palmer said. "But you look at it closer and realize there's a whole lot of players and parts that could be developed independently.

"They're working on a plan," Palmer said. "It's not a project."

Nonetheless, Sheinberg understands why some people are excited about the prospects of such a plan becoming a reality.

"If you've lived in Juneau five years you've heard people say, 'We need a visitors center, we need parking downtown, we need a way to get pedestrians across Egan Drive, we need a way to bring residents back downtown, and isn't there something we can do with Gold Creek except watch salmon smash against a cement wall all day?'

"People have wanted these things, and I guess we've been lucky enough to take a stab at bringing all of the elements together," Sheinberg said. "We've talked with land owners and the community to see what made sense."

But many hurdles exist, Sheinberg and Voelckers pointed out.

"Everything northwest of the current supbort the marine park, the residential condos, the marina is on fill or piling and decking," Sheinberg said. "That's one of the big ifs."

Getting fill permits will be difficult. She and Voelckers listed other potential hiccups. Parking, even with a new parking and transit structure, will still be inadequate. That's in part due to the planned elimination of a 200-spot parking lot used by many state employees near the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices.

Plus, the architects said, traffic approaches and departs the downtown area much too fast. A narrowing of Egan Drive's lanes from Merchant's Wharf to Gold Creek would slow traffic, as would trees and heavy foliage in the median.

"We expect so many co-issues," Voelckers said. " We want a lot of discussion and open dialogue."

"Will somebody pick this up and move it forward?" Sheinberg asked. "The next thing to take place should be a broader review by the community, and a much harder look at costs and financing and demands."

The plan won't unfold all at once, she said. Some elements could begin being developed now. It might be decades before others follow. As city manager Palmer said, the city is already looking into the development of a parking structure and transit station.

"This won't happen in two years," Sheinberg said. "But 25 years from now, even though our economy is slowing down, at just a half-percent of growth per year, we'll have a lot more people here.

"This is a much smaller scale than other West Coast communities, but yet very similar. There's a reason for that, because a combination of mixed usages works."



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