Details on administration decision to hold off on new state office building

Downtown Douglas will keep a state office building and a new office complex will NOT be built in Juneau any time soon.

As KTOO has reported, the Douglas Island building has become the Parnell Administration’s top priority as it addresses the needs of state office space in the capital city. Here are more details of that decision:

The administration was expected to soon announce the location of a new 140-thousand square foot office building to house about 500 employees from the departments of Labor, Public Safety, Fish and Game and Corrections.

Instead, Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg says an analysis led to a different plan:

“I don’t think we’re saying we’re not going to build a new building, we’re just saying that our first priority is renovating the Douglas Island Office Building and then we’re going to do some additional work and planning to understand the need for office space in Juneau,” Hultberg says.

Juneau city leaders, state legislators as well as Palin, then Parnell administration officials, have been discussing the new facility for about three years.

A new capital city office complex was proposed in 2009 at the old downtown subport, owned by the Mental Health Trust Authority. Legislation allowing the Authority to develop office space and lease it to the state did not survive that session, but $2-million in planning and design funds were given to the project last year.

Hultberg says the work led to a different conclusion.

“It enabled us to have a better understanding of the condition of the existing buildings we have,” she says. “Prior to this there were some assumptions made, some very limited work done, but really the appropriation enabled us to do the detailed work that has led us to this conclusion.”

Hultberg says an engineer’s study shows the old Douglas building is structurally sound and can be renovated. She estimates it could cost $15-million to $20-million.

But the question remains of what to do with the old Public Safety Building on Whittier Street. It’s been considered a temporary home for the department since the 1970s.

Hultberg says the Public Safety Building is not worth rehabilitating and employees will have to be moved at some point.

“Whether that’s in a lease or a state-owned building has yet to be determined. And we don’t have a decision yet on the ultimate disposition of that building,” she says.

The lease for the so-called Plywood Palace, which houses the Department of Labor, expires next year. The poorly constructed building has long been a pain to the administration. Recent work was done to get rid of mold and other bacteria that some state employees said made them sick.

Hultberg says the administration is negotiating with the building’s absentee owner.

“But really we need to go through a process of looking at the space that we have in state office buildings, ensuring that we’re maximizing the use that space, looking at what space might be freed up in the SLAM project goes forward, and then assessing what additional space needs we have in Juneau and that would include a decision on what do about the Department of Labor,” she says.

SLAM is the proposed State Libraries, Archives and Museum complex, which will not be built for several years. Hultberg says nearly two floors of the State Office Building may be available once the library is moved.

Juneau State Representatives Cathy Munoz and Beth Kerttula carried the legislation is 2009 for a new office complex.

Both say they’re disappointed the Parnell administration has changed course and they will continue working with the administration on a new office building in the capital city.

While Munoz says she appreciates the need for fiscal responsibility and is pleased the administration still plans to invest in Juneau, she believes the Plywood Palace has to be replaced.

“And we just need to keep moving forward to make ensure our long term goal of replacing, or being able to construct a new facility to accommodate the Department of Labor employees is met,” she says.

Kerttula says it’s good the state will retain an office building in downtown Douglas.  She admits frustration at the state’s decisions years years ago to construct sub-standard facilities. Kerttula says it is clear Juneau will need a new state office building.

“You could have told them at the time when they moved people into the Plywood Palace and the DEC building, too, from my perspective, that eventually those buildings were not going to withstand even the weather,” she says.

Administration Commissioner Hultberg says the administration has no plans to move employees from the four departments out of Juneau.