A sign warning of cars going through Chicken Yard Park is pictured on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. The Parks and Recreation department posted the signs this summer. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

A sign warning of cars going through Chicken Yard Park is pictured on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. The Parks and Recreation department posted the signs this summer. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Long-ignored city code violation putting future of downtown park at risk

Issues of safety, access to private home clash as city looks to rebuild Chicken Yard Park

City officials and the residents of Starr Hill are at odds about the future of Juneau’s oldest park, but both agree that a change should have been made long ago.

A home is located just next to Chicken Yard Park, where a playground was installed in 1988. Since 1930 — well before the playground was installed — the house has had a driveway running to it from Sixth Street. Vicki Van Fleet lives there with her husband Jack Gitchell, and said they’re both extremely vigilant when driving home, always keeping an eye out for children playing.

The driveway goes directly through the park, which is in violation of City and Borough of Juneau code 67.01.090, which states that motor vehicles are not allowed in recreation areas.

The city has not enforced that ordinance for this property, though. Until this summer.

Parks and Recreation Director George Schaaf said the department has known about this problem for a long time, but now rot, age and insect damage have made the playground equipment unsafe. The city has $90,000 set aside to design and construct a new park, thanks to sales tax revenue from the 1 percent sales tax increase approved in 2012.

“The problem we face now is, if we were asked to build a playground today with a driveway going through it, there’s no safety standard in the world and there’s no way to justify that to the public,” Schaaf said. “So the reason why we’re talking about it today, because this has been used by vehicles for a long time, is that the playground equipment now is a safety hazard.”

That puts Van Fleet in a difficult position.

“I totally understand the safety issues that are there,” Van Fleet said during an interview at her home Tuesday, “but when something’s been going on for 88 years … and the city is the one who put the playground in in 1988 knowing full well that the access was there, I don’t know what I was supposed to do.”

Van Fleet said they’re willing to work with the city. While both sides agree that safety issues at the park should be addressed, neighbors have been unhappy with the way the city has taken actions this summer.

More than 20 neighbors spoke during Tuesday night’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) meeting, many of them critical of the city for looking to take action without consulting the neighbors.

There are two main options currently on the table, according to a CBJ release. The first is for the city to keep the property as a park and to restrict cars from the area. The second is to not rebuild the playground and sell off the property. Schaaf presented a number of nuanced possibilities at Tuesday’s meeting, like splitting the park up into part park and part driveway.

Shauna McMahon, a neighbor who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, summed up the apparent view of both those who spoke and members of the PRAC.

“I don’t think this is an either/or situation,” McMahon said. “I think there are enough people in this community that we can come up with a creative solution that can solve both the access and keep it a park.”

PRAC members agreed with her, saying they didn’t want to take action yet, electing to listen to neighbors before moving forward. PRAC member Kirsten Shelton made a motion that the Parks and Recreation department set up a neighborhood meeting with the residents to start a joint decision-making process about the future of the park.

Moving quickly this summer

The issue came to a head beginning in June. In June, Schaaf said, a Starr Hill resident called and asked why there were construction trucks at Chicken Yard Park.

Employees at the department were unaware of any construction, Schaaf said, and when they arrived at the park they found that the small driveway leading up to the house was being repaved.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Schaaf showed a brief video of a young girl in a pink sweater playing on the swings near an active construction site.

“That, to us, is terrifying,” Schaaf said. “We would never do a project like that at a park and keep it open to the public.”

Schaaf and the department then acted quickly. They removed the playground’s slide, which they believed was alarmingly close to the path that cars were taking. They then removed the swings.

Van Fleet said Schaaf also left a note on their door, saying the department was preparing to block off access to the driveway. They didn’t end up blocking off the driveway, but Van Fleet was still surprised by how quickly the city was looking to move.

“The city has been pretty heavy-handed in this and I think all the neighbors will attest to that,” Van Fleet said. “I see (the city’s) side. I understand the ordinance. What we’re trying to do, is we’re trying to make it work, is us having some kind of access and we want the playground.”

Other neighbors, who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, said they didn’t receive notice from the city of any intention to remove the slide and swings. They also said there wasn’t any notification until the city sent out a letter just last week.

The history of the park dates back to the early 1900s, according to a plaque on the site. In 1909, the Sisters of St. Anne bought the Simpson Hospital, which stood at the site of the current park. At one point, the nuns raised chickens on site to help supplement the diets of their patients at the hospital.

PRAC Chair Chris Mertl said this has been an awkward situation, but it’s one that is important for the community. He lauded Schaaf, who has only been in his position since May, for taking initiative.

“I do want to give credit to Mr. Schaaf for actually being the one who finally said this is an issue that needs to be dealt with. We’ve been sweeping it under the carpet for years and years. Although he may have, for some, offended some of you, I think he deserves a little bit of credit for actually grabbing the ball and saying we need to resolve this issue.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

Starr Hill resident Vicki Van Vleet speaks at a Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. More than 20 residents spoke at the meeting, imploring the committee to keep Chicken Yard Park. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Starr Hill resident Vicki Van Vleet speaks at a Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. More than 20 residents spoke at the meeting, imploring the committee to keep Chicken Yard Park. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

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