This story has been updated to note the proposed development will next be discussed at the Planning Commission’s meeting on Nov. 8, not Oct. 25.
A project that would make a significant dent in Juneau’s housing crisis by building up to 444 apartments and townhomes on a 20-acre lot at 7400 Glacier Highway got its first look by a supportive Planning Commission on Tuesday, but plenty of people living in what they describe as a quiet neighborhood adjacent to the proposed project are raising numerous concerns.
The densely forested hillside for the proposed residences is on the southern side of the neighborhood along Vista Del Sol Drive, according to the application and other documents submitted to the commission. About 30 multi-unit housing complexes consisting of 370 apartments and 74 townhomes would be built in phases, beginning with 72 residences the builder hopes to begin working on next year.
“Obviously there’s a housing need and we feel like we can provide a project that can serve the community well,” Garrett Johnson, a partner in Rooftop Properties, which is seeking to build what it calls the Ridgeview Subdivision, told Planning Commission members. “We want to phase this so that we can adjust and work with the demand in the community. We want it to be safe, connected, and have connections with nature.”
Several people signed up to comment during the meeting and nearly all were residents of the Vista Del Sol neighborhood, which consists mostly of single-family homes, opposing portions or all of the project. Concerns included traffic along Glacier Highway and any streets connecting them to the new development, potential risks of a planned natural buffer between the two neighborhoods, and the density of the project relative to the surrounding area.
“Our primary concern is not to have our road connected so we don’t have an additional 2,577 daily road trips through our property,” said Tim Storbeck, one of the Vista Del Sol residents testifying, arguing the new development needs its own entrance and exit streets to Glacier Highway.
Other residents expressing opposition to the new development would also significantly increase traffic on Glacier Highway and, while they want a buffer between the two neighborhoods consisting of fencing and/or landscaping, risks exist there as well.
“We are concerned about trees that will be left standing after 7400 Glacier Highway is clearcut,” Erica and Rich Sjoroos wrote in a letter to the commission. “Unfortunately, residents on Vista Del Sol Drive already know how their houses can be at risk in this situation. Multiple houses have already experienced the scare, inconvenience and expense of having trees fall on their roofs after only the lowest portion of the lot (was) clearcut in the past.”
The commission unanimously voted to continue hearing input about the project from the developer and stakeholders until its Nov. 8 meeting, after telling Johnson to discuss concerns and unanswered questions raised Tuesday with city officials and Vista Del Sol residents.
Among the unanswered questions during public testimony were whether the new residences would be sold and/or rented, and to what extend needs such as low-income and disabled-access housing might be provided. Dr. Emily Kane, a board member of the Juneau Commission on Aging, said special needs and senior housing are becoming particular needs given the city’s changing demographics, and making them part of the initial design is the most efficient way to address the problem.
“Obviously, I would like more attention paid to the number of ADA and Fair Housing Act considerations as a general ruling going forward with multi-unit developments,” she said. “We’re getting older faster and it’s expensive to retrofit housing.”
Other issues raised by residents and commission members included how natural spaces would be incorporated into the new development and how the developers planned to address issues such snow removal/storage. Johnson, responding to a question about the latter, acknowledged it’s not something his company felt necessary to include in the initial application process.
“Absolutely that is something we need to solve,” he said. “We hadn’t planned on addressing that as part of the planning approval process. I don’t have a great answer for you now other than we know we have to provide those spaces.”
A couple of bureaucratic terms were frequently referred to and likely to be part of the ongoing vocabulary about of the project.
The first is Alternative Residential Subdivision (ARS), since the Ridgeview proposal is the first of significant size being considered by city planning officials that falls into that section of the municipal code, according to Scott Ciambor, a city planning manager.
In explaining the term to commission members, he stated the potential value of an ARS was raised by “developers who had found specific, basically disadvantaged, properties and that there would be a lot of value in finding a flexible way to still achieve the density that the underlying zoning had implied.”
The planning department’s report to the commission based on an evaluation of the initial proposal recommends a number of modifications ranging from showing off-street parking plans to the installation of a vegetated barrier along the Vista Del Sol neighborhood.
“I think it would be fair to say that the scale and the exact rollout of this ARS has been a little bit surprising to some of us in some respects given that it was different from the application that was anticipated,” Ciambor said.
The second term — two of them, actually — are D-5 and D-18, which refer to the zoning codes for the Vista Del Sol and proposed Ridgeview Subdivision neighborhoods, respectively. The D-18 designation, allowing for more dense residential development, was previously approved by commission for the undeveloped parcel and several Vista Del Sol residents stated they’re concerned about adverse impacts on their property values.
“I’m confident that allowing for more than three times the amount of traffic in my small neighborhood will decrease the value of my home,” Holly and Sea Kveum wrote in a letter to the commission, adding the city assessor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the prospect.
But while the developers may face a longer and more complex process than hoped, it’s clear they are trying to get the planning part of their permitting and application process approved by a favorably minded commission.
“I think it’s a very well-thought plan” that addresses density concerns raised by neighbors, said Paul Voelckers, the commission’s vice chair, who expressed reluctance — but not outright opposition — to continue the initial public hearing process until the next meeting since delays might make any plans for initial work such as obtaining materials before winter unlikely.
Extending the process, even if it is means the final project might be built a year later than hoped, is worthwhile given the large-scale nature of the proposal, said fellow commissioner Mandy Cole
“A plan of this size and scope is worth doing right, right from the beginning,” she said. “Yes, a month feels like a long time, but that is lightning fast in the world of city government.”
Among the other commissioners weighing in, deputy clerk Daniel Hickok said he’s “very much in support of this project,” and Mathew Bell said he’s “intrigued” by project and the developer’s work with community to address concerns.
“A month, like my fellow commissioner said, moves fast and you have a lot of support,” Bell said.