Imagine a high-end condominium tower on Juneau’s downtown waterfront, with space for retail and offices on the lower levels.
Two local businessmen have come up with an early design concept for a prime piece of real estate in the Capital City. The so-called subport property, near the corner of Egan Dr. and Whittier St., has been vacant for more than a decade.
The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority owns the bulk of the proposed development site. The question remains: Is the authority ready to let it go?
The subport lot looks out at Gastineau Channel. Across the water are the snow covered mountains of Douglas Island. Look left, and on clear day, you can see down the channel for miles. It’s easy to see why the property is so desirable to developers, like Paul Voelckers.
“The majority of use, if this project turns out to be real, would likely be small, but high quality condominium housing,” said Voelckers, president of Juneau-based MRV Architects.
Together with local businessman Reed Stoops, he’s come up with what he calls “a first series of sketches” for possible development of the subport lot, which is currently the staging area for construction crews working on the new State Library Archives and Museum building, scheduled for completion in 2016.
Voelckers says the idea for high end housing on the lot came out of frequent conversations he and Stoops find themselves having with Juneau residents of a certain demographic.
“They’re 60, or 65, or something,” he said. “And they don’t need a big place anymore, and they’d like the opportunity to travel, but they’d like to maintain a base in Juneau.”
Inevitably, he says, they hear the same things.
“It would be great if there was additional housing opportunities downtown that took advantage of the great view, the walking proximity to an art district, walking proximity to a grocery store, and health club,” Voelckers said. “Just all the things that part of town might potentially offer, but is you know still sort of sitting there unrealized.”
The proposed condo building would be 3-5 stories and include retail and office space on the ground floor. The overall concept includes an extension of the seawalk – already a prominent feature of the downtown waterfront south of Marine Park. Voelckers and Stoops envision a small marina for yachts near the uplands development.
It’s also being pitched as an alternate site for a proposed bronze whale statue, though the city is already working to place the sculpture at a new park near the Douglas Bridge.
“At this stage we continue to look at the bridge park site as our preferred alternative,” said former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, a spokesman for the Whale Project. “But any proposals that come through that will materially advance the timeline of the project, we’re prepared to look at.”
Voelckers says it’s important to recognize, this is all very preliminary. Five years ago, a proposal to build a new state office building in the subport area fell through when Juneau’s legislative delegation failed to convince other lawmakers the deal was worth it.
“We’d be getting ahead of ourselves to say there was a timeline or even what the exact pieces were,” he said.
Voelckers says the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority has indicated a willingness to entertain proposals for the subport property. John Morrison is Chief Administrative Officer of the Trust Land Office. He declined an on-tape interview for this story, but says he had one meeting with Stoops and Voelckers. Morrison says the land office is not actively pursuing any deals at this point, but is always interested in maximizing the value of the trust.
Voelckers and Stoops have also met with city officials, including Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford. Housing is one of the Juneau Assembly’s top priorities. Sanford says he thinks its fine that the proposal is for high end condos, rather than more affordable housing.
“No. We need housing in Juneau, Alaska,” said Sanford. “So whenever I see anybody from the private sector, who will break their dollars free to build, then I see it as a good thing.”
The Assembly in December appointed Voelckers to the Juneau Planning Commission. He’d have to recuse himself if he were still on the panel and the project made it to the permitting stage. Voelckers says the timing of the appointment and his work on the subport proposal is entirely coincidental.