After nearly three hours of presentations, public comment and pondering Tuesday night, the Juneau Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a Preliminary Plat for Phase 1 of the Pederson Hill Subdivision.
The next step for the proposal — one that has been discussed for nearly two decades — is to go to the city Assembly for its Committee of the Whole meeting March 13, where it will consider partnership terms and disposal options for lots. The subdivision, intended to supply more affordable housing, covers approximately 120 acres and would result in 86 Residential lots.
The proposal has drawn mixed reviews from the community, and about 25 members of the public gathered in the Assembly Chambers at City Hall, with seven of them supplying public testimony. Many of them remained there from the meeting’s beginning at 7 p.m. to the commission’s final vote, which began at 9:42 p.m.
Lands Manager Greg Chaney was the main presenter and answered questions both from committee members and from the public. One of the main concerns with the proposed subdivision is the small size of the lots, but Chaney said the density would be the same as downtown Juneau and downtown Douglas.
“This isn’t really that mysterious or that new,” Chaney said during his presentation, as both he and city planner Eric Feldt detailed the history of the project that dates all the way back to the CBJ Land Management plan in 1999.
The approval is for the first phase of the development, which divides the area into the 86 residential lots, adding five new streets with sidewalks and streetlights. Five more lots will be preserved for habitat and a future park. A new equestrian trail and new pedestrian pathways will also be part of this initial phase.
Commission member Dan Miller moved to vote in favor of the proposal, but was not without his concerns. He brought up the size of the lots, as well as the environmental implications of the development. The rest of the commission members then followed suit and voted in favor, also airing their concerns.
Those environmental issues arose when Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Carl Koch brought up the effects that could arise with the development. Koch said that there are 400 acres surrounding the plat that are vital to local wildlife.
“That area is used by black bears, wolves, coyotes and deer,” Koch said. “It’s a very important travel corridor and most of the activity passes through there. We would recommend some sort of buffer.”
Koch suggested a buffer of about 100 meters, and multiple members of the commission mentioned that this idea should be taken into account as it moves forward. All eight members on hand (and Carl Green by phone) approved the proposal, but three of them mentioned that they were concerned about the effects on wildlife. Commission Chair Ben Haight was not present.
Another main concern that locals have had is that of the financial feasibility of the project. Building homes for the proposed amount of about $250,000 has felt like a “Holy Grail,” Chaney joked, as some find it impossible to build a home for that cheap.
“I’ve been told many times, that’s not possible,” Chaney said of the $250,000 homes, “but I got together with some architects and we worked through it, and it’s about expectations and realistic expectations.”
The homes wouldn’t be lavish or spacious, “nothing fancy,” as Chaney said. The houses would have the basics, and that’s about it. He asked those on hand to compare living in these homes to living in apartments, as those looking to live in these houses will likely be choosing between an apartment or one of these starter homes.
Seeking a cure
Despite the concerns, the idea of providing more affordable housing in town is an attractive one to many. Multiple community members, including former University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh and former Planning Commission Vice Chairman Dennis Watson, gave their support to the proposal. Another, 23-year-old accountant Zachary Stetson, expressed his frustration with the difficulty of finding housing in town and gave his wholehearted support for the proposal.
CBJ Assembly member Debbie White, who is also a local realtor, told the Empire afterward via email that creating affordable housing is one of the biggest issues in town, and that it was one of the key talking points in her campaign for the Assembly. Commission member Daniel Hickok agreed, pointing out that the issue has been a hot topic for years.
“Every local candidacy,” Hickok said, “you always hear about, ‘Affordable housing, what are we going to do about affordable housing?’ I don’t know if this is going to cure it, but I think I’m going to approve the motion myself.”
Commission Clerk Michael LeVine was especially assertive during the meeting, challenging Chaney and city planner Eric Feldt on many issues and asking for numerous clarifications. He expressed frustration that there were still so many questions to be asked about the development, but sees the future of the subdivision as bright.
“I believe this will be a good project,” LeVine said. “I’m encouraged by one of the things Mr. Chaney said, which is, ‘We’re going to have paved roads, sidewalks, no variances,’ we’re not going to be needing to dig into, is this going to be good enough down the road and what kinds of conditions we have in this development.”
If the CBJ Assembly Committee of the Whole also signs off, detailed engineering will begin in the spring. The final engineering plan will be complete by the fall, when partnerships should be finalized and CBJ Engineering will prepare a bid package. If everything goes smoothly, construction would begin in late 2018, Chaney estimated.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.