PUBLISHED: 4:35 PM on Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Juneau prepares for public discussion about parking
A photo hanging in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum is perhaps the best reminder of a public controversy that riled Juneau more than two decades ago.

A similar controversy could emerge again, later this year.

The photo features Betty Breck, a Juneau activist who called herself Belle Blue.

Belle Blue fought to stop the construction of the Marine Park Parking Garage after it had started in the 1980s. She managed to halt it, for a little while.

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Plans for a parking garage and a transit center for Juneau are in the works at Telephone Hill.
"She went to court and according to the Juneau Empire editorial of the day, she cleaned the municipality's clock in Superior Court," said Rorie Watt, Deputy Engineering Director for the City and Borough of Juneau.

The lawsuit halted work on the garage and the city fenced the construction site. Ultimately it restarted the project and completed it in 1985.

Watt is working on plans for another parking garage and a transit center for Juneau. Telephone Hill could become its site. When Watt tells people he's working on a parking garage for the city, some respond with three words: dumb, cheap and ugly. He said they're referring to the Marine Park garage. The 300-space lot on the waterfront still draws snipes, but nothing matches the ire surrounding its construction.

"It landed daily on the front page of the newspaper and at every assembly meeting there were comments," Watt said.

Although the garage is often half empty, Watt said it fails to satisfy Juneau's parking needs. He said people complain that it is too far from shops and offices.

In October 2005, Juneau voters approved a temporary sales tax extension to dedicate $7.7 million to a transit center and downtown parking garage. With the addition of federal funds, the project is now budgeted for $10 million. The money is now available.

Plans call for 200 to 300 parking spaces in a covered garage. The Transit Center would be a waiting area for bus passengers with restrooms, a food vendor and a Juneau police substation. It also would provide room for bus drivers to take breaks, according to the City's Transit Superintendent John Kern. He said Juneau has been planning a transit center for years.

"What really has made the transit center a doable project now is tying it to the idea of another downtown parking garage," Kern said.

City officials said the Telephone Hill location, across from Hangar on the Wharf at the end of Main Street, is favorable because of its proximity to businesses. It's also just beneath the site chosen long ago for a new capitol building.

City engineers looked to the 2005 state capitol design competition to figure out how to arrange the garage and transit center on the site. The preferred concept takes a J shape. It would be chiseled into Telephone Hill behind the Main Street parking lot and bus station. The straight expanse would border Main Street. The curved segment would hook around the hill. The city would blast into the hillside to remove rock to make space for the structure, under the favored scheme.

The rock removal could result in a sharp drop about ten feet from one of the homes on Telephone Hill. The hill itself is one of Juneau's most historic places. In 1881 it was chosen as a site for a U.S. military barracks. Later the first government court house in Juneau went up there. About a dozen historic homes remain.

Already Juneauites are raising questions about the garage and transit center. Dixie Hood served on a city transportation committee that looked at options for public transportation. She is currently running for City Assembly. She said the prime Main Street location will be wasted on parking.

"This new proposal on the foot of Main street and wrapping around to Willoughby looks like a big concrete box that's going to be plunked there on prime property and it's going to stick up and cast a shadow and won't feel like an improvement," she said. Hood also argues that there is enough downtown parking today and there's no need for another few hundred spaces.

City engineer Watt points to examples of parking garages around the country that are elegantly designed and well suited to surrounding architecture. He admits there are many unanswered questions about the proposed project. He said the first public meeting on the garage and transit center will be scheduled for September.