Juneau’s city government has grown, and it needs more space. The City and Borough of Juneau proposes to spend $27 million to build a new city hall, a crown of a building resting atop an existing downtown parking garage across from the Merchants Wharf.
City Manager Rorie Watt has been advocating for the new edifice, saying that city government has long since outgrown its current location a block away. The city spends $750,000 a year leasing space in adjacent buildings, and Watt says it’s time to consolidate and ultimately save the city money.
It’s an opportunity for Juneau to rethink its downtown municipal government footprint. While most city halls tend to be in the heart of their downtowns, few places are as congested as downtown Juneau, where the mountains and the sea leave little room for city expansion.
And while government is expanding, Juneau is not growing in population. In 2003, the McDowell Group estimated that by 2018, the population of the capital would be about 34,500 residents. Instead, the 2018 population for Juneau was 32,113, according to U.S. Census estimates. In fact, population has been shrinking for the past two years in this community, where government employment is about 41 percent of the total job market.
The capital city’s budget has continued to grow. For fiscal year 2020, it’s $356 million, a 1.8 percent increase in one year but more than double what it was in 1999, in constant dollars. The city also carries $88 million in general obligation bond debt.
But to the heart of the question: Is downtown Juneau the right place for City Hall?
For those on Chicken Ridge or Starr Hill, yes, but for most of the people in Juneau, buying a pool pass or going to the harbor department isn’t a task that needs to be accomplished downtown, where parking is difficult and where dodging inebriates is an acquired skill. Most of the business that people have with their local governments deal with permits and fees — and using one’s time efficiently is a strong consideration.
NorthWind Architects has scoped out the feasibility of building the two-story government office on top of the parking garage the city built in 2009. City Manager Watt laid out the plan before the Juneau Assembly earlier this week.
But it’s the voters who will ultimately decide if taxpayers should spend the estimated $27 million, plus debt service that would exceed $12 million, on the downtown structure.
The focus on putting City Hall in the crowded downtown corridor ignores the fact that most residents live in the Mendenhall Valley. A massive former Walmart store sits empty at Lemon Creek and could accommodate all city operations with parking to spare.
Assembly member Rob Edwardson said, “20,000 of the 32,000 people in Juneau live out in the valley. Most of our meetings are held in the evening, so it wouldn’t really matter whether they work downtown or not. It would be closer to their homes … which means, again, more accessibility.”
On the upside, having a City Hall with a world-class view of the channel would make working at City Hall more pleasant. It would arguably be the City Hall with the best view on the planet. Political leaders from the City would have easy access to the Capital, as well as all the favorite lunch spots and watering holes around town. Also, because the parking garage doesn’t provide property taxes to the city, the building would not be displacing an existing revenue generator.
On the other hand, moving City Hall out of the downtown core would also eliminate hundreds of vehicles from downtown, freeing up space for shoppers and residents, reducing congestion and pollution, and allowing businesses to attract more local shoppers to the zone. Repurposing an abandoned building in Lemon Creek would help revitalize a neighborhood that has long needed some solutions and would require half the travel, and therefore half the carbon footprint, of having to go all the way to town to take care of a five-minute chore.
And then there’s the State’s budget and the pending decision whether to continue the school construction debt reimbursement program. If the State does not provide reimbursement, and it’s likely not to, the financial responsibility will be shifted to the municipalities to pay for debts they have already incurred. Last year, the city manager warned of such a possibility.
“Our citizens should be advised that the most likely outcome of school debt shifting by the governor or legislature is a local property tax increase between 4.4% and 13.7% for the next 1, 5 or 10 years,” City Manager Watt wrote last year in an April 29, 2018 memo to the Mayor and Assembly.
Mayor Weldon advised that the public needs to weigh in on the new city hall plan and decide if now is the time to build. Public meetings will take place this summer to discuss the merits. The next municipal election, when the question could be on the ballot, is Oct. 1, 2019.