City and Borough of Juneau officials, along with a team of architects, hosted a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday night, offering residents a chance to do a deeper dive on the four final sites under consideration for a proposed new City Hall.
Options under consideration include renovating the current City Hall building and continuing to rent space downtown to accommodate staff members, redeveloping the vacant Walmart building in the Lemon Creek area, adding a new building atop the downtown transportation center, or constructing a new building on the city-owned public safety lot at 450 Whittier St.
According to a November 2021 survey, Juneau residents support the idea of a new City Hall. City leaders hope that interest translates into the approval of a ballot initiative to authorize construction. The site selection process and economic studies will continue for the next few weeks with the goal of adding the question to the October ballot.
During the meeting, architects reviewed the pros and cons of each site and shared preliminary cost information. Of the sites, three are downtown, and one is in Lemon Creek, which prompted a discussion about parking options and challenges for the downtown options.
Downtown proponents also weighed in about the importance of keeping a civic presence downtown to support local businesses — especially in the winter when cruise ship visitors and other tourists are not visiting downtown establishments.
Alex Vrabec, director of the Downtown Business Association, cited research that shows downtown workers each spend up to $7,000 a year — a lifeline to the DBA’s 120 businesses. She said that residents coming downtown to visit civic facilities add to downtown-based businesses’ health.
Moving to Lemon Creek
Although the Walmart building enjoyed strong support in the community survey, architects explained that the size of the building is significantly larger than the city needs and presents other challenges.
“The Walmart site is a favorite for some obvious reasons. There’s good access to the broader community. It’s central between downtown and the (Mendenhall) Valley. The space is large, and parking is ample,” said James Bibb, principal architect, and partner at NorthWind Architects, who is working on the project.
Bibb said that the cost of bringing the building up to code for modern office space and making the site energy-efficient is high. In addition, the land under the building is on a lease, so the city would have to pay rent and the site offers poor pedestrian access.
Assembly member Wade Bryson pointed out that the site is also one of Juneau’s only remaining sites suitable for big-box retail, and developing a municipal center there could remove the site from property tax rolls. He also expressed concern about constructing a municipal building on leased land.
Angie Nolan, a broker at Alaska Unlimited Realty and the real estate agent representing the building, said she thought the city could find other ways to use the excess space at the site and said the land could be sold under the right conditions. She suggested moving the Lemon Creek Fire Station to a portion of the building, adding some hospital services or making a section available for child care.
“Many people want to lease a portion for other uses. Many people have approached me to put new businesses in that location. More things can be explored,” Nolan said.
According to a presentation shared during the meeting, renovating the Walmart building would cost about $43 million and $271,000 in lease payments each year for the 40-year term of the lease.
In an online comment box available during the presentation, Eric Cody Salter urged the consideration of other locations in Lemon Creek.
“Considering the fact that the majority of the public voted for the city hall being in Lemon Creek and realizing that the Walmart building is a bad idea shouldn’t the first place to consider putting City Hall be put there,” he wrote, adding that a location across from Western Auto could make sense. “A MAJOR consideration should be the downtown parking problem would be solved by moving City Hall out of downtown.”
CBJ city architect Jeanne Rynne said that renovating the current City Hall site is an option but that it’s not a long-term solution, and renovations don’t solve the overall space issue in the existing building.
She highlighted significant projects at the site, including exterior painting, installing a new roof, adding fall protection to the roof, and revamping the inside infrastructure.
“Most of the inside infrastructure is at the end of its useful life,” Rynne said. “The electrical needs to be upgraded and we’d need to reconfigure space and update all the restrooms,” she said, adding that the changes could add 25 years of useful life to the 70-year old building.
Sean Boily, a principal architect and partner at NorthWind Architects, shared a cost estimate for renovating the current facility, saying that the repairs would cost about $11.2 million along with about $750,000 in continued lease costs. Over 40 years, the price of this option adds up to $41.2 million. The costs do not include moving employees to new quarters during the renovation.
Because the city currently rents spaces in the Marine View building that are designed as apartments, this option also reduces the amount of downtown housing available.
“Housing downtown is one of the assembly’s highest priorities,” Bryson said.
According to Boily, new construction at 450 Whittier St. would likely cost about $33.5 million with an additional $3.9 million to add 36 below-grade parking spaces. The team said the site would accommodate a three-story building with underground parking.
During the presentation, the architects explained that because the city owns the land and adjacent parcels, the project’s overall cost is lower. Also, new construction means the city can build a low-maintenance, energy-efficient building that exactly meets the city’s needs.
The team also cited proximity to the Alaska State Capitol complex, tribal headquarters, the Alaska State Museum and Archives, and the potential development of the nearby subport area as a cruise ship port as factors that make the site attractive.
“This could be part of a greater expansion downtown,” Bibb said. “City and public buildings play a role with how things develop.”
However, officials acknowledged that the site could also be a good fit for housing, and that building of city hall there would call for a broader parking strategy.
Officials said that adding City Hall to the top of the Downtown Transit Center is the least expensive option–coming in at $32.8 million. The cost is lower because the city does not need to purchase land or build a foundation since one already exists. In addition, the design team can leverage work done during previous City Hall studies if this location is selected.
The design team said that a low-maintenance 100-year building could be built on the site. Challenges include crews working up high to complete construction in a tight space, challenges retrofitting the concrete structure with utilities, and does not add any new parking.
In addition, the building would have no street access for pedestrians and building there precludes future expansion of the parking garage.
Katie Koester, director of the CBJ Engineering and Public Works Department, said that study will continue on the sites. She said staff members will share information, public comments and feedback with the assembly in February.
Residents with comments or questions can email them to email@example.com
“I encourage involvement. Most any building is of great symbolic value. We are considering a broader vision of what Juneau is and where it needs to go. I encourage next steps as we look at refining sites, we need good conversations,” Bibb said.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.