Tensions were high Wednesday evening as residents clashed with officials over the four newly proposed preliminary design concepts for the redevelopment project of downtown’s Telephone Hill.
“It seems to me like we’re getting something pushed down our throats here,” said Charles VanKirk, who was greeted with applause after speaking in a microphone to the crowd.
The meeting held by the City and Borough of Juneau and the redevelopment project’s team was the second open house to gather public opinion about what to do with the 2.5 acres of developable land that is considered to be a historic part of downtown Juneau.
Unlike the last meeting, the team brought four designs introducing potential additions such as townhomes, apartments, hotels and public gathering spaces. They said the four designs were created based on public feedback from the first meeting, along with accounting for public desire to increase downtown housing options. Of the new designs, only one included keeping the houses that currently reside on the land, but still suggested developing around them.
The other three designs don’t include the houses at all, but in turn offer options that would increase housing availability significantly more on the land. The designs range from introducing 32, 56, 66, or 100-200 new units. For many of the 50 or so attendees at the event, they took great issue that only one of the options included keeping the houses and that there wasn’t a “no-development option” on the table.
“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Tony Tengs. “When that history is gone you can’t rebuild history, you can’t take that back. The real thing is very special and it means a lot to the people of the future.”
According to the city, about 15 people currently reside on the downtown hillside — nicknamed Telephone Hill after a telephone company called it home in the early 1900s. Many people who reside there have done so for years, but no individual has owned those homes for nearly four decades.
Instead they have been renting them from the state, which in 1984 bought the property for $4.6 million with the idea of redeveloping the land to develop a new Capitol building. That never happened.
Instead the land sat in limbo, leaving the people living on the property in a state of unease and uncertainty about what the future might hold. This spring the state transferred the ownership of the land to the city and since July officials have begun fielding public input about potential redevelopment options to present to the Assembly.
Many residents spoke out against the options provided by the project’s team, arguing the area is historically significant and that any development would change that. Joshua Adams said he is against the redevelopment, but doesn’t believe the city would choose the option to keep the current houses even if that’s what the public wanted.
“We all know that the city is going to look at this with the survey and say, ‘no, none of these buildings can be feasibly restored,’” he said. “Anybody who knows anything about historic restorations knows that it’s at least three times as expensive to restore something properly than it is to tear it down and build it new. Does that mean that we shouldn’t preserve our history?”
Adams said he fears the history of the location will be lost forever.
Callie Conerton said she feels the design concepts are too vague to choose from at this point. She said she worries the housing options suggested wouldn’t be affordable to average residents and is also concerned the units might be turned into short-term rentals.
“How are we supposed to give ideas on a plan if we don’t know if it’s affordable?” she said. “Is it high-end condos? Is it anything like that? That’s a huge thing to consider when we’re even thinking about that if we don’t know what user.”
Conerton said there could be an opportunity for addressing affordability if that is valued, along with potential stipulations put in place to address concerns like short-term rental conversions. But he noted “we don’t have the precise answer just yet. We’re trying to get to a preferred alternative.”
Rachel Beck said concerns expressed at the meeting by residents should be directed toward the Assembly, not the project team members. She said that’s where their voices can have the most impact.
“The people who are making the decision, who will make the decision and who can be influenced about Telephone Hill, is the Assembly,” she said. She urged residents to go to the Assembly’s upcoming meeting to offer testimony about the project.
“There is an opportunity to change the course, but it usually takes a groundswell of human bodies showing up, and making these comments and writing letters,” Beck said. “I see legislators’ minds get changed, I’ve seen Assembly members’ minds get changed when it looked like it was gonna go this certain way and it actually changed.”
Assembly member Loren Jones was at the meeting, but said he doesn’t have much say in the matter from an Assembly perspective given that he will be replaced in two weeks with a new member. Paul Kelly, who is currently leading the Areawide Assembly race, was also there and said he was listening to their concerns and making note of them if he is voted into office.
According to Nick Druyvestein, project manager for the redevelopment master plan, he thought the meeting went great.
“We wanted people to talk. That was the whole purpose of this meeting was to have an open conversation about the future of Telephone Hill and I thought we did that perfectly,” he said. “We heard a lot of people speak a lot of good ideas and we’ve heard a lot of emotion. It’s been just great for this project. It’s given us a lot of direction.”
Druyvestein said the master plan is scheduled to be complete and sent to the Assembly in December, but he noted there’s a chance of another public meeting being held before then.