Juneau Assembly moves historic district boundary to clear way for Soboleff Center

Bill Martin Freda Westman

Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Bill Martin and Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Freda Westman testify to the Juneau Assembly on January 28, 2013. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

The Juneau Assembly on Monday voted to change the boundary of the city’s historic district, clearing the way for Sealaska Heritage Institute’s proposed Walter Soboleff Center to be built as designed.

The four-story, 29,000 square foot education and cultural facility will be constructed on a vacant lot at the corner of Seward and Front Streets downtown. The property was right on the edge of the historic district until Monday, when the Assembly voted to remove it.

While the district honors the late 19th and early 20th century architecture of Juneau’s original mining period, plans for the Soboleff Center call for traditional Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian designs with modern flourishes.

The city’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee recommended the Assembly keep Front Street as part of the historic district, a move opposed by Sealaska Heritage officials.

SHI President Rosita Worl said forcing the nonprofit to redesign the building would be costly and delay the project.

“It would take up to 20 variances in order to meet the direct district standards,” Worl said. “The architectural and engineering costs alone, those changes and modifications would require an additional $120,000 and a two to three months delay, just in the design.”

Worl also called any changes a “serious challenge” to SHI’s cultural values.

“We believe that the design of the center compliments the historic district and the history of Juneau by highlighting Native inspired architectural design and the heritage of the Tlingit Indians that is largely absent from the historic district and all other areas of Juneau,” she said.

Rosita Worl

Rosita Worl. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Freda Westman added that the building would not just be for Juneau residents to enjoy.

“Visitors coming from the surrounding villages. They are going to want to see this building be presented intact, in the way it was designed,” Westman said. “It will honor them, and it will honor us.”

The Assembly approved the boundary change without any debate.

SHI has secured most of the estimated $20 million needed for construction. That includes $3 million in sales tax revenue approved by city voters last year. The project could break ground as soon as this year.

The facility will be named for the Reverend Doctor Walter Soboleff, a renowned Tlingit elder and scholar who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102.

The property where it will be built is the site of the former Skinner Building, which was destroyed by fire in 2004. It subsequently fell into disrepair and was known as “The Pit” until Sealaska bought it in 2010.