Win Gruening: Pride cometh before the fall with new City Hall in Juneau

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When the idea of a new city hall in Juneau surfaced several years ago, the idea fell flat.  State budget tightening had impacted city finances and the thought of spending $27 million on a brand-new government building (complete with a waterfront view on prime downtown real estate) seemed excessive. 

City Manager Rorie Watt stated the project would consolidate city employees in one central location, make operations more efficient, and eliminate the need to rent space in other downtown locations, thus saving $750,000 annually.

Then Covid hit and the plan went dormant.

Now with Covid waning and Alaska awash in federal funding for critical infrastructure, the proposal has been resurrected. This time, however, city officials have mounted a public relations campaign to convince the electorate that their original idea had merit.

Last October, an online survey was conducted to gauge public opinion about the project.  The survey captured 1,326 responses – approximately 4% of Juneau’s population.  About three-fourths (74%) of respondents indicated they were supportive or strongly supportive of building a new city hall instead of continuing to rent office space, while 18% indicated they were opposed or strongly opposed.  Nine percent had no opinion.

City officials are now using this unscientific survey as evidence that the majority of Juneau residents support the project.

However, as noted in the survey, it represented a self-selected sample rather than a random sample and results “should not be considered statistically representative of Juneau’s adult population.”  In addition, approximately 17% of those surveyed were city employees who may have been biased in favor of new quarters. Respondents were not prevented from voting multiple times.

Somewhat misleading in that it didn’t mention the cost of the project, the survey only disclosed that reduced space rental costs could theoretically finance a $12 million 30-year bond.  How many respondents thought $12 million was the full cost and given rising interest rates, is that even accurate now?

Using a dozen different criteria (such as parking, cost, accessibility, etc.) officials later narrowed down practical locations to eight possible sites in the borough.  The leading candidate, to date, to no one’s surprise, is the originally proposed location, on top of the Downtown Transit Center/Parking Garage.

While the Downtown Transit Center is identified as one of the least expensive options, is it realistic to use the original $27 million estimate given that building costs have skyrocketed in the interim? 

By placing the emphasis on this arguably questionable cost figure, other equally important considerations are being ignored.  Parking availability was rated highly in the survey and accessibility was deemed important, yet the Downtown Transit Center offers little of either. In fact, the majority of respondents (over 60%) preferred a location in the Mendenhall Valley or Lemon Creek where these requirements could be met.

The former Walmart location in Lemon Creek preferred by most who took the survey was estimated to cost $38 million.  Is this number credible given the dubious cost estimate of the Downtown Transit Center site?

Juneau’s economy remains fragile.  A recent Empire article was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming cruise season but failed to mention a major cruise line bankruptcy and the on-going schedule cancellations of many cruise lines in first quarter 2022. 

Unoccupied storefronts line Juneau’s downtown streets. Business owners are struggling with higher property taxes. Who will fill the empty commercial property added to downtown if the city abandons its leases and vacates the current city-owned location?  Are all of the economic impacts surrounding this project being considered?  

Finally, how many city employees will continue to work from home, a concept favored by 61% of survey respondents?

There’s nothing wrong with evaluating more efficient options for city government. But the campaign to sell this specific concept has not bolstered the credibility of the process.  Much like the $77 million Capital Civic Center mega-project, Juneau’s city leaders seem hell-bent on ignoring public concerns and forging ahead with questionable assumptions toward a pre-determined outcome. 

Both projects will be competing for speculative federal funding and will require a level of financial support from taxpayers.   Over-hyped projects like this, with costs that are under-estimated, usually become budget-busters.  Supporters justify continuing them by arguing too much money is already invested, leaving taxpayers stuck with the final bill.

The time to ask questions and get answers is now – before reaching the point where we cannot change course.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Juneau city government is the most poorly managed organization north of San Francisco and south of Anchorage. They spent six months debating the Paris Climate Accord. They made a grant of tax-payer money to teach “drag queen lessons.” They spent $17 million on a brass whale and lost a court fight over the miss-spending on summary judgement. Voters said no – overwhelmingly – on a new performing arts center but the Assembly just appropriated $2 million to design one anyway. They are building apartments for the homeless, for $300,000 each, and believe they have solved the homeless problem; but guess what – the homeless population is growing, with people moving here for – you guessed it, free apartments. This is the capital city for all Alaskans!

    • In support of Kayak’s comment, I refer readers to the recently-completed Housing First Project on Allen Court, Juneau, Alaska. A City-funded housing project whereby homeless people are given free apartments in which they are allowed to continue using alcohol and drugs. Its a novel approach mimicking that of Seattle. The construction cost was over $500/SF while the average cost for private-sector units is less than $200/SF. Proponents will argue that the model actually works; its a real solution. However, must always consider: at what cost? Government solutions are rarely financially feasible.

      • The proponents of that $500 a square foot fiasco made the claim that the occupants would be using far less emergency, medical and police services as justification for building the place.

        When those ‘proponents’ claim it really works ask them for the data showing that the occupants have been using less emergency, medical and police services ….that data does not exist as there has been no change.

  2. Excellent article. The city council wants a palatial city hall to conduct their business but I guarantee that as always, public access will be limited. I’d imagine the only place the public could go would be the lobby. But cost is nothing to these people, they can just raise taxes. They want to be like Seattle and they’re on their way.

  3. get them some atco trailers and put them on the lemon creek jail property so they can be close to the rest of the crooks

    • AK4liberation, excellent suggestion!
      However, I may suggest that the offices be closer to Mt. Stinko, AKA the Lemon Creek landfill. It’s full of Rats and the olfactory affront would doubtless serve to increase conformity to their Mask Mandates!

      • Robert: The new CBJ HQ is not going anywhere near Mt. Stinko.
        A lot of us think the fix is already in on building a new City Hall on the site of the old Public Safety Building. It will have underground parking to City Manager and Assembly members.
        The justification for a new City Hall is based on a very dubious survey (as discussed in Win’s column), and the supposed need to stop paying rent for office space. There are, of course, solutions that would preclude expenditure of office rental but the CBJ is not inclined to think creatively about these kinds of cost-effective solutions. Instead, the CBJ Assembly and management team are revved up to spend, spend, spend on a new facility. Largely lost in this impulse to spend is a genuine assessment of what the citizens genuinely need and can afford.
        Oh well ………….
        It’s a democracy. We get what we deserve down here in the British Columbia portion of Alaska.

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