The members of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly are looking to take their time considering the further development of an area of the downtown seawalk between the Taku Dock and Marine Park.
Morris Communications — the former owner of the Empire — has owned the majority of a lot adjacent to the Marine Parking Garage downtown for quite a few years, and is now looking to develop the lot with commercial space, a bus shelter, additional restrooms, an expanded USS Juneau memorial, a space for food carts and more. The city owns a portion of the 1.6-acre lot, known as the Archipelago Lot.
Representatives from Morris were at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, alongside CBJ Docks &Harbors Port Director Carl Uchytil and Port Engineer Gary Gillette. Uchytil and Gillette presented their vision for the future of the lot, and were bullish about the spot’s potential.
“I really think we’re on the cusp of the next big thing in Juneau,” Uchytil said, saying that he wanted to see some kind of direction from the committee about what to do next with the plan.
The Assembly members peppered Uchytil, Gillette and Morris’ representatives — Real Estate Director Allen Grinalds and VP of Properties and Facilities Bob Kuhar — with questions for more than two hours.
Morris Communications recently sold many of its publications, and representatives from Morris have informed the CBJ that the company is looking to transition from a media company to more of a real estate company, according to a Docks &Harbors memo. Developing this property, Grinalds said, would benefit both Morris and Juneau. He said that the aim would be to have the shops on the land open year-round which would bring business to the area even after the tourists leave and other businesses in the area close up shop. During the summer, the lot is populated with food trucks and temporary food stands.
Grinalds said they would ideally like to get up and running in time for tourist season in 2019, meaning construction on the lot would have to start next year. It quickly became clear that the Assembly members wanted to move a little slower and consider their options.
After two hours of discussion, Mayor Ken Koelsch made a motion that city staff bring back a more specific plan and a timeline to the next Committee of the Whole meeting.
Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski expressed concern that despite there being multiple open meetings about the subject that she felt community members still hadn’t had enough time to share their thoughts and concerns.
“It is the last undeveloped piece of property on the waterfront,” Gladziszewski said. “If we are gonna partner, we should as, as an Assembly and a community, decide what it is we’re trying to get out of that.”
Part of that community is the group of vendors that occupies the space during the summer. David McCasland, owner of Deckhand Dave’s, said he has been trying to go to as many meetings as he can to try and understand the options moving forward. He said he hopes the land remains affordable for food vendors to rent, that tourist congestion is reduced and that the “lot is developed in a way that promotes local business and an inviting atmosphere that the locals can enjoy year-round.”
Gladziszewski also asked if they had considered adding housing to the layout. Grinalds said they considered hotels and apartments, but that those pursuits would be “exquisitely expensive” due to the extra floors they would have to build and the parking they would have to install.
City Manager Rorie Watt said another important factor will be the funding sources for the project. With the city owning a portion of the lot, it’s unclear how much money the city would have to contribute. Uchytil said the cost to develop the area is estimated at between $25-30 million. Watt said that because the vision is to cater the improvements to a year-round crowd instead of solely to tourists, he wasn’t sure if the city could use any cruise passenger funds for the project.
Uchytil said the plan is still developing, and that he hopes they can work hand-in-hand with the Assembly.
“I don’t know what it’s gonna look like two weeks from now, three weeks from now, but I know this is a good deal for the city in some form,” Uchytil said. “We just have to figure out what those agreements are.”
In general, the Assembly members were on board with revamping the area, they just had questions. Assembly member Loren Jones was especially hesitant to move forward quickly.
“I’ve been impressed with Morris Communications’ process,” Jones said. “I don’t want them to pick up their toys and go home, but at the same time I don’t want to give Docks &Harbors and the city a blank check to say, ‘Whatever Morris wants to do, great.’”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.