Tower of power: Juneau ponders new city hall - Must Read Alaska
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Sunday, November 17, 2019
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Tower of power: Juneau ponders new city hall

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.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • A budget that is 3/5 the size of the Anchorage budget with one tenth of the population?

    • The Juneau budget figure includes the airport, the hospital, and the school district. Juneau’s general government budget is more like one tenth of Anchorage’s.

  • Very simple. Move all the government offices, including the capitol, to Wasilla or Anchorage. Not only would it save Juneau all the congestion and expense of hosting countless political venues, the move would make the entire Alaska government process convenient and accessible to the majority of constituents that currently have no/limited access to the governmental workings of the politicians. That would ensure the majority of the populace accessibility to the political workings and the opportunity to participate, in person, not over the phone. Even though the politicians would rather remain unreachable to most, it would be more fair to their constituents. Save a lot of money on airfares and per diem, also. DO IT!!

  • If only there was some way to keep an eye on those shifty politicians:

    https://www.360north.org/watch/#page=schedule&day=20190502&provider=Broadcast

  • May the Holy City of Juneau tax its residents into oblivion for the sacred mission of erecting yet another temple to the Great God Government…
    .
    while Alaska’s capital is moved elsewhere.

  • I’ve lived in Juneau since 1979. It’s a great place to live a good Capitol, but this proposal is a bureaucratic fantasy and dead on arrival.

    • I suspect you are right here, Joe. Just as the LIO building in Anchorage collapsed after the money got scarce, this boondoggle should also be given the heave-ho.
      It is looking like Watt may try to get it voted on, though.

  • Excellent article, thank you. Re Walmart office space, yes please, or failing that, elimination of the positions and the desks which do not fit in their present spaces suits me better than another $$$ architect’s sketch has done.

    • I assume that the abandoned Walmart is the same place that was the abandoned Kmart the last time I visited Juneau, somewhere in between the Switzer Creek trailer ghetto and the interchange? I remember the police station being downtown not far from the present city hall, which is apparently now in Lemon Creek. The same logic behind that move would apply here, I would think.

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