Some buildings need a new coat of paint. Some are mere shells. The parking meters are wrapped in shrouds, the cigarette butt bins sometimes catch fire, and it isn’t always easy for business owners to improve their properties. But residents, artists, city officials and investors are working on projects and plans to fix the problems of downtown Juneau. Not least is a movement catalyzed by a documentary highlighting downtown Juneau’s problems, created by local filmmaker Pat Race and commissioned by businessman Bruce Denton.
Though those who live and work in downtown Juneau acknowledge the area faces big problems, city officials say they’re open to any and all suggestions about how to make improvement happen.
Juneau’s community development director, Hal Hart, looks to the past for the future. The burned-out Gastineau Apartments building was “Juneau’s answer to early tourism and the state capital” when it opened about a century ago, he said.
Miners traveled back and forth from Douglas until late in the night for the opening gala, he said.
Builders added another story to the building, “betting on the future” again, he said.
“That’s kind of a neat thing — the positive future of this place. The feelings they had,” he said.
Developers and investors have similar feelings nowadays, he said. A group of investors has submitted a proposal to build a mixed-use apartment building at Second and Franklin. The spot is currently a city-owned parking lot.
Selling the land for development, said city lands and resources manager Greg Chaney, would be contingent on performance, with a reversing clause if developers didn’t build within a certain period of time. It’s a sale “with strings attached,” he said; the plans are still conceptual.
The owner of a decrepit building on Gastineau Avenue — of which there was a picture in Part I of this series — is also working to restore the building and attended a recent planning commission meeting.
The success of the space formerly known as the “pit,” now home to the Walter Soboleff Center, “should give us some pause and some confidence we can solve … other problems as they come up,” Hart said. “Each renovation has a set of issues that are its own and that are standalone issues.”
Hart, Chaney and others also point to “exciting” hopes for downtown. Some of those are on the harbors front, Chaney said, with the city’s Lands, Parks, and Harbors divisions all working on a “very conceptual” joint project for a park and a maritime museum near the Juneau Hotel.
They also mentioned the Willoughby Arts District, a planned joint project of Perseverance Theatre and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council that would build a performing arts center downtown.
The Juneau Economic Development Council, said executive director Brian Holst, supports three main steps towards revitalization: increased housing, streetscape improvements and a “circulator” — a bus, trolley, or some kind of vehicle that would make a circuit of downtown Juneau. That circulation would spread out business, help parking and expand people’s experience of downtown, he said.
Streetscape improvements encompass the physical as well as social issues like chronic homelessness and inebriation, Holst said.
Holst points to the JEDC’s “Storefront Star” awards, which are an example of the work that the organization is doing to revitalize downtown.
Twilight Café won that award this year for its improved storefront, including a garden, outdoor seating and bigger windows.
“We’ve been thinking about (doing more improvements) for a long time,” co-owner Catherine Christobal told reporter Katie Moritz at the ceremony. The contest was “perfect timing.”
Silverbow Bakery co-owner and Downtown Business Association President Jill Ramiel said she thinks the JEDC’s inclusion of downtown revitalization in its five-year strategic plan “has been really helpful in taking small steps to bring a lot of this issue to light.”
Holst also points to independent business’ decisions to invest in downtown Juneau — new businesses, improvements in existing properties and cleanups.
That investment is a good thing in more than one way — from an urban development standpoint, retail is “like an ecological organism,” Hart said. One business does better when there’s another nearby.
“We’re working on (downtown revitalization) as much as we can, but it’s one of these efforts that will take time,” Holst said. “This video and this new energy is catalytic and is pushing everyone forward a little more quickly. We’ll continue to support these efforts.”
Housing — or the lack of affordable housing — is a constant Juneau concern.
“It’s pretty clear, all things considered, if more residents lived downtown, downtown would become more vibrant,” Holst said. “People there in the evenings … change the atmosphere of a place, and you also have this constant demand for a variety of services that would be present.”
Ramiel said she knows professionals who say they would love to live downtown “if there was a decent place to live.”
“Why do we have that problem? That’s insane,” she said.
Hart and Assembly member Jesse Kiehl pointed out that downtown is in many respects, a neighborhood. It’s also where tourism, history, the state capitol and the city’s business center come together.
Those here for the legislative session need housing. Those here for the tourist season need housing. It’s difficult to balance those needs with the need for year-round housing.
Kiehl is one of those who live downtown regardless of the season.
“My perspective on this is that we can improve things, because I really love living downtown,” he said. “I think there are lot of positive things going on … new business going in at the Baranof, new restaurants opening, … so it really is, I think, a vibrant place … we have challenges, we have opportunities, and we should jump on both.”
The city is looking at streamlining regulations and working with the development community to help incentivize additional housing, make remodeling easier and even encourage homeowners to add housing — say, a basement apartment — as part of a remodel, Hart said.
Remodels are up, he said. As of a week and a half ago, the city had considered $65 million this year to date in permit development value. Of that, $32 million was in remodels.
“That’s an interesting trend — a low hanging fruit to create a lot more housing in the community,” Hart said.
As highlighted in Part II of this series, housing is also important for the chronically homeless and inebriated who spend much of their days in downtown Juneau.
The Assembly is providing funding and grants to nonprofits that help out that population, but is “very much looking for more ideas and more ways that we can help address these issues,” Kiehl said.
“I they’ve gotten intense enough that they’re really starting to be a concern to some people,” he said.
“Because downtowns are vibrant places with lots of people and lots of commerce, those who live on the edges and who experience isolation are drawn there, and it’s always been that way. But as Juneau grows I think that that population is getting easier to see and we notice the problems a great deal more,” Kiehl said.
Kiehl supports the housing-first model discussed in Part II of this series; he invited Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness chairman Scott Ciambor to present at a meeting last December and remains committed to working on a housing project for the homeless, though it remains to be seen where it will be located, he said.
Juneau mayor Merrill Sanford highlighted social issues, as well, saying that the chronically homeless and inebriate population downtown is “a very important part of this whole issue.”
“In the past it’s kind of been thought that the city would do it all and would end up … magically waving a wand and taking care of problems that are strictly downtown in our business core,” he said, mentioning the discussions that have come out of the documentary. “That’s not going to happen. We need help. We need to work together … we need to all figure out ways to solve this problem that gives us a negative connotation to our downtown area.”
Sanford mentioned the idea of moving the downtown shelter and soup kitchen, the Glory Hole. Shelter director Mariya Lovischuk has said moving the shelter would cost about as much as a permanent supportive housing facility for those who, due to chronic inebriation, are ineligible for shelter at the nonprofit.
The Glory Hole only allows residents with a blood alcohol content of less than 0.1 percent.
Sanford also said the city is looking at housing first programs like the permanent supportive housing facilities discussed in Part II of this series. Identifying partners and a location for that facility is one of the Assembly’s main goals, he said.
The JEDC sees “lots of potential for housing,” Holst said. But progress is a slow thing.
“If it were easy to do, it would be done,” he said.
Some downtown buildings could use a face lift, a new coat of paint, or a new roof. But it isn’t always as easy as it could be, however, for downtown business owners to improve their premises.
“I truly honestly believe it’s easier to maintain a building anyplace else in Juneau other than downtown,” said Triangle Bar and building owner Leeann Thomas.
Thomas recently completed a series of renovations in the century-old building, she said.
She had to coordinate input from the fire marshal, the historic resources advisory committee and the planning department. That input was sometimes conflicted, meaning she had to liaise among the departments.
“It’s all up to the business owner to go meet with every one of them and explain what the other person said,” Thomas said.
She had to wait for someone to get back from vacation, resolve disparities in advice, and wait for an OK, creating a delay that sent her contractor, who was ready to work, on to a different project.
She’s also been frustrated by differences of opinion in regard to the city’s regulations — sometimes something’s allowable, and sometimes it’s not. Special permits are needed to park construction trucks downtown. One contractor told her such issues made it “a pain” for him to do work downtown.
Delays in the heating project were especially frustrating. It involved a small space, but the city stopped Alaska Electrical Light and Power from upgrading the power to the new system. In the meantime, she’d look across the street, at the burned-out Gastineau Apartments building.
“Here I am spending thousands and thousands of dollars trying to improve my building (and) getting stopped, but when you’re turn around, what are you looking at?” she said. “At least try to help the people that are trying to improve. … Ultimately, they agreed to do it the way it made sense, but it took a week and a half of figuring that out after waiting two and a half weeks … and a couple more meetings to agree on something.”
Because the work had already begun, it meant the building, which also houses residents, was without heat for a few weeks.
“I think the city can put a little more effort into making it easier for downtown businesses to improve. … And to improve is great, but sometimes it’s just to maintain your building. It can be a crisis. Your roof is leaking, you want to park a truck there to rip off your roof, and people are telling you to move it,” she said.
Ramiel also said the process was frustrating when she renovated her building.
“It took a long time to go through permitting, too,” she said.
Sometimes Holst wishes it were “a little more clear, a little easier to navigate the (city’s) procedures and the approvals,” he said. But he emphasized that the city has reached out to builders and developers to clarify the process, and that “we (the JEDC) recognize how hard civil servants work.”
In spite of her frustration, Thomas said the same thing, emphasizing her desire to be positive and her knowledge that, especially with departmental cuts, city employees are working hard.
Hart said feedback like Thomas’ is “like gold to us.”
Hart said he encourages pre-application meetings, which ensure all departments are on board and have a clear understanding of the project and its needs before it begins.
“That creates a really good synergy around the proposed project,” he said.
It also cuts down on conflicting answers like those Thomas experienced, he said, and prevents later miscommunication.
“Hopefully we’re not having too many of those issues, but it’s gold to hear that there’s an issue there, because we can’t fix stuff until we know there’s an issue there,” he said.
As far as inconsistency, one possible reason is that rules — like building codes — actually change, Hart said.
In case of emergency, Hart said to go ahead and deal with the problem — and the parking — and the city would “work out the details later.”
“Always give us a call, let us know what you’re doing, and we’ll work with you,” he said.
In the end, Thomas said, she wants to stay positive about the experience. The work eventually got done, even if it took longer than she hoped. She just hopes that others don’t experience what she did — businesses could be scared off from renovations if they have to jump through too many hoops.
“If they keep shutting people down,” she said, “there’s not going to be increased sales tax (from nicer, renovated buildings), there’s going to be people moving out of downtown.”
Incentives and solutions
“I think that we have so much potential, that’s what is frustrating right now. The physicality of our downtown is lovely. It’s pedestrian-friendly and urban and really unique,” Ramiel said. “Right now we’re focusing on all the bad things about it, but I wish we could have somebody turn the conversation around and help us.”
Ramiel said other cities have had similar problems, but Juneau has lots of groups and people pulling in different directions with different ideas. There’s no one coordinator for downtown improvement.
“All the problems that we have, other cities have the exact same problems. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “There are all these things out there in the universe that could help us ... We could use a series of both investments and incentives.”
The city is looking at “sweetening” opportunities to incentivize development, Hart said.
Property tax abatement — reducing the taxes on a business for five, 10, or even 15 years if the building is restored to a certain quality — may be one of those tools.
Another sweetener could be changing the rules for those buildings, especially when it comes to parking, and the release of more city land for private sale and development, Hart said.
Discussions over these potential tools are only among city officials at this point, he said.
Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford said he is open to any and all ideas to get things moving downtown.
“A lot of things we already do good, we do well, and others we fall a bit short of,” Sanford said. “If anybody can bring an idea to us to help facilitate (improvements), I would be willing as one Assembly member out of nine to look at those.”
One of those ideas is tax abatement, he said.
“I would be willing as the mayor to look at any way of incentivizing (revitalization of decrepit structures) to make that happen,” he said. “We need to get those buildings occupied by families and people living in the downtown corridor.”
A stated Assembly goal is working with downtown-centered organizations like the Downtown Business Association for “any type of revitalization we can get going,” Sanford said.
Though she said she hadn’t talked with other members of the DBA about it so couldn’t speak for the membership, Ramiel said she believes the solution is to have a city employee whose job is dedicated to the issue of revitalizing downtown.
“I think the leadership has to come from the city, and up until now it hasn’t been something they’ve focused on. I think that’s what you saw in the video. What Pat Race pointed out a lot — decay, sidewalks that are falling apart … and then there’s property owners themselves. Where does it start? Is it because sidewalks are crumbling … that building owners stop maintaining buildings? Or vice-versa?” she asked.
As an all-volunteer organization with an annual budget of about $25,000, the DBA can only do so much on big downtown problems, Ramiel said.
She’s been around for periods of activity that seemed to spur change, such as after Art Sutch’s downtown business was vandalized a few years ago. Now, people are working toward change again.
“That’s great, but we can’t do it in fits and starts,” she said. “I think if we’re going to see real change, it’s not going to be tiny little spotted efforts here and there … there has to be somebody whose job it is … downtown is vital to all of that (tax revenue, legislators and tourists).”
“What I’m really looking forward to is this group (dubbed the Downtown Improvement Group) continuing into the future doing things that are really positive,” said Denton, the business owner that commissioned the film. “The best thing to make downtown better is to get more people to show up here.”
“I’m very very hopeful (about) … people like Bruce Denton that are saying ‘Hey, lets do something positive here,’ Hart said. “That’s the right place to start from … making (downtown) a great place for business is really important. Making it a fun place for the neighborhood and community is really important. It’s everybody’s space.”