An illustration shows the conceptual design for Gastineau Lodge Apartments in downtown Juneau, which the project’s applicant hopes will be ready for occupancy by the summer of 2025. (Image from documents submitted to the Juneau Planning Commission)

An illustration shows the conceptual design for Gastineau Lodge Apartments in downtown Juneau, which the project’s applicant hopes will be ready for occupancy by the summer of 2025. (Image from documents submitted to the Juneau Planning Commission)

Apartment building on Gastineau Avenue gets Planning Commission OK despite fire department concerns

Project in landslide zone also shows effect of Assembly’s vote to eliminate development restrictions.

A six-story, 72-unit apartment building toward the end of Gastineau Avenue got a conditional use permit by a 7-1 vote from the Juneau Planning Commission on Tuesday, despite Juneau’s fire chief saying his department can’t support the project due to serious concerns about emergency access on the narrow dead-end road.

The project known as Gastineau Lodge Apartments is also in a mapped landslide zone, providing an early real-world example of the impact of an ordinance passed Monday by the Juneau Assembly that eliminates development restrictions in such zones.

Even without those restrictions, the apartment building is a long way from construction. The Planning Commission included 12 conditions that must be met under the land use permit’s approval and the project still faces immense questions about the fire department’s concerns in obtaining a building permit.

Steve Soenksen, manager of the project for the private development group Gastineau Lodge Apartments LLC, said after the meeting he still needs to review the details of the planning commission’s conditions, but they aren’t deterring from his hopes of making the apartments available to tenants by the summer of 2025.

“It appears to be reasonable things, things we can do, things we can accommodate and things that are required by code anyway,” he said.

The building would tower over structures along the east side of South Franklin Street, roughly across the street from where the Downtown Juneau Public Library is located. Vehicle access would be from several hundred yards north on Gastineau Avenue, which in practical terms is a single-lane, dead-end street due to vehicles parked in front of residences along most of the road.

The difficulty of accessing a residential building for so many people makes the project as proposed unacceptable, Capital City Fire/Rescue Chief Rich Etheridge told the Planning Commission.

“There’s many times that we can’t get a fire engine all the way down Gastineau Avenue due to parking large vehicles parked on the roadway, or in the wintertime snow removal pushing cars further out into the roadway,” he said. “So we end up parking the fire engines down at Baranof Hotel, and fire crews and medics ride up at the pickup truck, or they can get the ambulance up there. That does get problematic.”

There also isn’t an easy turnaround point anywhere on the cul-de-sac, Etheridge said. He said a second reliable access point — likely by extending the street to reconnect with Franklin Street/Thane Road below — appears to be the likely way to resolve the fire department’s concerns.

“From a review of the fire code I don’t see how we can put a six-story building (there) without the proper fire access,” he said.

Soenksen, responding to comments by Etheridge and others about potential problems with the project, told commission members the intent is to address a critical need for housing downtown.

“In the last 30 years there really hasn’t been any apartment buildings downtown, where this has become one of the prime interests of the Assembly,” he said. “So having presented this project we’ve tried to accommodate as many of the issues and concerns as we have. It’s a difficult site. It’s a challenging location. But it does allow for great pedestrian access and interaction, and some housing where it’s needed the most.”

The emergency safety concerns expressed by Etheridge are something being evaluated as part of an ongoing design process, said James Bibb, principal architect and a partner at NorthWind Architects, who appeared with Soenksen to testify on behalf of the project during the meeting.

“There’s some means within the design of the building itself, and larger buildings, that try to…help the fire department fight fires within the building,” Bibb said. Among such possibilities he and Soenksen mentioned was a mostly concrete building with a minimum of combustible material.

Furthermore, “the cul-de-sac should probably put on the front burner — if not just for this project, for general concern with the issue of fire trucks that challenge of getting fire trucks up the street,” Bibb said “Then I think the second access to Gastineau certainly must be on the horizon as we hopefully see Juneau is going to grow.”

One hazard that won’t be an official impediment to the apartment building is its presence in a landslide zone, due to the new ordinance that states the public and property owners will simply be notified the risk zone exists — and even then there is a strongly worded disclaimer with phrases such as the maps designating the zones “do not provide an indication of risk as would be necessary to determine whether landslide hazards actually pose a threat to specific properties.”

Numerous residents in areas marked as landslide zones told the Juneau Assembly just the designations — even without official development restrictions — could hurt their property values, and result in financial consequences from institutions such as banks and insurers. There were also opinions by residents and some Assembly members that risks from natural elements are widespread throughout the region and something residents should take some responsibility for, which Soenksen expressed agreement with after Tuesday’s hearing.

“It’s clear to me that the Assembly — since other things have been happening in Southeast Alaska with the Wrangell landslide and with other landslides — that they know there’s more than just a map that’s going to address Mount Roberts concerns, and public health and safety,” he said. “And they may need to take a more proactive approach with monitoring and mitigation, and that sort of thing.”

In October 2022, the Juneau Assembly approved $700,000 from the Juneau Affordable Housing Fund for the apartment project. Planning commission members voting for the apartment building’s conditional use permit — with Nina Keller casting the lone dissenting vote — said they support the project’s intent as long as it satisfies the conditions attached to the permit.

Among those conditions are “prior to issuance of a Building Permit, an agreement shall be reached with Capital City Fire and Rescue (CCFR) to satisfy emergency response requirements.” Others include “an exterior, bear-resistant trash receptacle shall be provided,” various parking area requirements, and a pedestrian staircase and sufficient exterior lighting leading to the building from Bulger Way.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

Steve Soenksen (left), with the private development group Gastineau Lodge Apartments LLC, and James Bibb, an architect on the project, discuss the proposal with the Juneau Planning Commission on Tuesday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Steve Soenksen (left), with the private development group Gastineau Lodge Apartments LLC, and James Bibb, an architect on the project, discuss the proposal with the Juneau Planning Commission on Tuesday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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