Outdated hazard maps and city code are stalling an affordable housing project in downtown Juneau. The city is grappling with its need for affordable housing and how it interprets its own code.
The blue building at 247 South Franklin Street once housed dozens of people each night as The Glory Hall, Juneau’s emergency shelter and soup kitchen.
Director Mariya Lovishchuk tries a few keys before the door springs open. Glory Hall moved to a more spacious location this summer, and the downtown property that the Glory Hall non-profit still owns is almost empty.
Lovishchuk walks through the commercial kitchen into a high-ceilinged dining area that once served up to a hundred meals a day. She heads up to the second and third floor, where she’s proposing to convert dorm spaces into apartments.
Lovishchuk says the city sorely needs affordable housing downtown, but Juneau’s development department won’t green-light her plans.
According to city paperwork that’s because the Glory Hall’s building is in a severe avalanche hazard zone. City code says existing properties in those zones cannot increase density through new construction.
Lovishchuk argues her plan actually reduces the number of people who might sleep there. The room she’s standing in is full of bunk beds. It once housed a dozen people. As an apartment only one or two people would live there.
“Overall, we are neither increasing the density of the people who are sleeping here, or the spaces inside the building. So I’m really hopeful that this is all gonna work out,” she said.
Lovishchuk’s plan will add some walls to the inside of the building, but instead of sleeping 50 people as a shelter, the apartments will sleep 7-14 people.
“The rub is in their reading of the code,” said City Manager Rorie Watt.
“They’re reading this as a conversion of building. In the planning world, they’re converting the use.”
He says the development department sees the new construction as a conversion of use — from a shelter to apartments — and they say that’s prohibited by code.
Code says development by conversion can’t increase density. The main goal is to “minimize the risk of loss of life or property due to landslides and avalanches.”
“For somebody not steeped in land use code or not regularly in it … you’d be like, ‘well, that doesn’t really make sense.’ And it’s like, well, it might not make sense. But that’s still what they think the code means,” Watt said.
Lovishchuk appealed the city’s decision to the planning commission, which voted unanimously to hear her appeal at a future meeting that hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Officials from the department wouldn’t speak on the matter while it is in an appeal process.