Illustrations of four preliminary development options for the Telephone Neighborhood are presented in a report that states the “mid-rise apartments” option (C), bordered in yellow, was narrowly favored in a survey among residents. A total of 29.76% of 1,865 people surveyed said they favored that option, compared to 29.06% of respondents favoring the “mixed infill” option (D), and 24.99% “attached townhomes and walk-up apartments” (B). (Images by the City and Borough of Juneau)

Illustrations of four preliminary development options for the Telephone Neighborhood are presented in a report that states the “mid-rise apartments” option (C), bordered in yellow, was narrowly favored in a survey among residents. A total of 29.76% of 1,865 people surveyed said they favored that option, compared to 29.06% of respondents favoring the “mixed infill” option (D), and 24.99% “attached townhomes and walk-up apartments” (B). (Images by the City and Borough of Juneau)

Building up to 200 new Telephone Hill residences, the most of four options, gets early Assembly OK

Option favored by 29.76% of residents in survey, barely edging out proposal keeping existing homes.

A redevelopment proposal for Telephone Hill that includes mid-rise apartments with up to 200 new housing units — by far the most of four options considered — as well as a hotel got initial approval to proceed in an 8-1 vote by Juneau Assembly members on Monday night.

The Assembly, meeting as the Committee of the Whole, voted to have staff further refine the option that includes 100-200 housing units in mid-rise apartments after being told it was favored — barely — in a survey of residents. A total of 29.76% of 1,865 respondents favored the highest-density proposal (known as Option C), while a “mixed and existing homes” alternative resulting in 56 housing units (Option D) got 29.06%.

The top two options essentially represent opposing viewpoints, since Option D features the least new development of the four alternatives and is the only one that seeks to preserve existing homes in the historic downtown neighborhood.

The other options include low-density townhomes that would add 32 housing units and a large low-height office building (Option A, favored by 16.19% of respondents), and a mix of townhomes and walk-up apartments that would add 66 housing units (Option B, favored by 24.99% of respondents).

The redevelopment of the roughly four-acre site has been contentious, with public testimony at meetings since last year largely opposing any option that impacts existing homes — among the area’s oldest — and open space. But most Assembly members on Monday said larger factors such as the city’s critical housing shortage, as well as legal obligations to be financially responsible with the land it acquired last spring, motivated their vote for the most-dense development option.

“This is very much the preliminary work, there’s still time to refine the finer bits of (Option) C, but it’s important for us to get going on an option that is going to bring us the maximum number of units because we are at those crisis levels,” said Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs.

One element of Option C likely to be quickly eliminated is the hotel, replacing it with another type of development such as a park, based on the survey of residents.

“One major piece of feedback that we received with regards to housing was to avoid any temporary housing,” said Nick Druyvestein, a project manager for the city who presented the results to the Assembly. “Temporary housing could be seen as a hotel, or even just developed units that could be used for Airbnb or VRBOs. The consensus among the community was any new housing development should be for the current long-term residents.”

Other aspects of Option C will also be subject to modification based on existing and future input, Druyvestein said.

“One of the biggest criticisms we did hear about design Option C was trying to get an understanding of exactly how dense and tall all buildings would be in there,” he said. “In future phases of design development and refining this concept there would have to be considerations made towards the impact of the higher density. That would be towards things like traffic or parking or view corridors. People wouldn’t be too happy if you built a really big ugly building on there. So it’s all about finding that middle ground between optimizing the amount of traditional housing units that are provided and still being able to maintain the existing landscape.”

The survey of residents conducted between Dec. 13 and Jan. 9 received more than 2,400 responses, according to a report by Druyvestein.

“The results from the survey show that dense, inclusive multi-family homes are the preferred housing development for Telephone Hill,” the report states. “Additionally, residents would like CBJ to consider new parks and recreation additions and connected pathways to encourage more foot traffic.”

City staff and project consultants are also working to address historic preservation components of Telephone Hill’s redevelopment, according to Druyvestein’s report.

Assembly member Christine Woll asked about the costs of the options, stating “it would be good to have some price-based choice.” Druyvestein said such an estimate, likely based on a cost per housing unit, will be part of the future refinement process.

The lone dissenting vote Monday was cast by Assembly member Paul Kelly, who said he favored the option leaving existing homes in place.

“I am hesitant to be in a position where I am asking people currently living there to leave,” he said. “And it is my opinion that we can accomplish a lot of the goals that were stated — such as having multifamily housing, such as having the levels of house that people are asking for — I think we can achieve that and allow the people who are living in the area to remain in their homes if we proceed with Option D.”

About 15 people currently live in the existing homes, some for many years, even though no individual has owned those homes for four decades. Instead, occupants rented the houses from the state after it bought the property in 1984 with the intent of redeveloping it for a new Capitol building, which never occurred. The state subsequently transferred the land to the city last year.

Mayor Beth Weldon, responding to Kelly, said even if the existing homes were preserved it is unlikely the current residents could remain in them due to changes in rent resulting from the city’s legal responsibilities as owner of the property.

“We have to remember that if we leave the houses there the people that are in them currently do not stay in them because those (houses) will go to a fair market value,” she said.

Similarly, Assembly member Wade Bryson, said “I sympathize with the people that are living there. I very much do. But all of the rules dictate that we go in a different direction.”

“Unfortunately we’re in a situation where we have a small group of people that like their view, (but) it’s not a situation where they can buy it,” he said. “I would hate for this Assembly to take an action that would stop economic growth for a small group of individuals, that doesn’t seem like the common good or good for the community. We do have a fiduciary responsibility.”

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

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