T he city has been crafting a 20-year plan for the downtown waterfront for some two years and is getting close to giving it the final seal of approval.
It faces a dilemma, however, in how to create a blueprint that fosters a thriving business community while maintaining the character of downtown and the quality of life for those who live here.
One of the controversial parts of the plan is just how tall buildings along the waterfront should be. Developers want some flexibility with height requirements, while many residents don't want waterfront structures to rise any taller than 35 feet, a typical height for downtown buildings. That's about three stories, or the height of Merchants Wharf. Downtown residents do, after all, want to feel like they live in a waterfront town and don't want a wall of seven-story buildings blocking views of Gastineau Channel.
One proposal is to offer a bonus system to businesses that want to build beyond the 35-foot height restriction in exchange for something that benefits the community, such as creating an open green space or leaving part of the waterfront open. Providing a measure of flexibility is reasonable and could offer more visual variety along the waterfront. But the city still needs to impose a maximum height limit, and it probably should be conservative, at perhaps no more than four stories. Seven-story buildings are not going to add to the historic, small-town feel that tourists find charming and locals want to preserve.
Another issue central to the waterfront plan is the building of cruise ship docks. The industry wants an additional dock in the subport area, the waterfront near Centennial Hall. However residents have indicated in testimony and two surveys that they do not want another dock in that area, largely because of traffic and environmental impacts. A Sept. 24 memo from Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce states that one of those surveys, sent to 16,000 voters and completed by 2,200, is "not statistically valid." This raises the question whether Juneau Assembly members are actually going to listen to the people who elect them.
The cruise ship industry is an important part of the downtown economy and industry officials clearly should be at the table as this long-term plan for the waterfront is drawn up. But ultimately, if the majority of Juneau residents oppose a dock in the subport area - and they do - an Assembly decision to override that may create more friction between Juneau residents and the tourism industry.
The Juneau Assembly has the chance to do the right thing with its waterfront development plan, and input from the residents who are here year-round must not be ignored. If community feedback isn't taken into account for the final blueprint, then the two years that have been invested in piecing together a 20-year plan will have been for naught.