State to transfer Telephone Hill to City and Borough of Juneau for redevelopment

Telephone Hill circa 1920
Telephone Hill in Juneau, circa 1920, as viewed from Gastineau Channel near Willoughby Avenue. Before a telephone company set up shop on the hill, it was known as Courthouse Hill. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Place File, ASL-Juneau-Views-Areas-Willoughby-Ave-06)

On a sunny afternoon, Maureen Conerton was lounging in a camp chair with her husband outside the home they lease on Telephone Hill. A plaque on the door claims it’s Juneau’s oldest home, built in the early 1880s.

Telephone Hill is a rocky ridge that juts out toward Gastineau Channel in downtown Juneau. The massive State Office Building straddles it. The Telephone Hill name stuck after a telephone company set up shop there in the early 1900s.

Conerton said she’s lived on Telephone Hill since 1989, calling it “the last little piece of old-time, rural Juneau” in the downtown area. She reminisced about epic, Alaska Folk Festival afterparties that the neighborhood used to host.

“It was wild. We had to take everything off the walls, all — everything, mirrors, pictures, everything,” Conerton said. “Moved the furniture into this side room back there because there were so many people in the — and every room was a different band. You know, the dining room was the Celtic band.”

One year, the festival’s headliner played harmonica — in the pantry.

“The walk-in pantry!” she said. “It was just like, ‘Wow, this is so amazing.'”

Those afterparties are long gone. And, according to a 1984 agreement between the city and state, her home and six others on Telephone Hill are also supposed to be long gone. The state and city intended to build a new Capitol complex on the hill and presumably raze the homes in the process.

Conerton and her neighbors don’t own their homes; the state does. Back in 1984, the state spent $4.6 million purchasing them. Some of them were just taken through a process known as eminent domain. The city pitched in $2 million.

When the City and Borough of Juneau built the Downtown Transit Center, it also built a small park on top of Telephone Hill that features this view of downtown Juneau, as pictured on May 21, 2022. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Telephone Hill is one of the most prominent natural features of the downtown area, which is part of why experts and locals back in the day thought it would be the ideal place to eventually build a new Capitol complex. That plan never came together, and the state became the landlord indefinitely for residents of the historic homes there.

The 1984 agreement says that if the state had not redeveloped Telephone Hill by 1994, it was supposed to compensate the city with cash and land. That also hasn’t happened.

Now there’s a renewed push for the state to transfer Telephone Hill to the city for redevelopment.

In a 2019 report, state officials flagged Telephone Hill as an asset it should consider selling. The city applied to get the land and settle the debt. It’s a slow process.

The city doesn’t have a concrete plan for Telephone Hill. But according to the city’s application, it intends to develop it “to support the Capitol campus, state government, and private development.”

Last week, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill that nudges the administration to get on with it. It was 11 p.m. on the Alaska Legislature’s final night in session — literally the 11th hour — when Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl got an amendment through that directs the administration to transfer Telephone Hill to the city.

“Since we just a few years back, put, oh, I think it was $37 million in seismic and other upgrades into the state Capitol building, it seems pretty clear that we’re not pursuing a new state Capitol building anywhere in the next generation or so,” Kiehl said.

The bill with Kiehl’s amendment is bound for the governor’s desk.

“I believe that this land transfer would have happened eventually. So I think this just cuts some time and some uncertainty out of the process,” Kiehl said.

Conerton said uncertainty is ingrained into life on Telephone Hill. Over the decades, it’s discouraged the residents from investing in significant repair projects.  Things like roof replacements and fresh paint.

She said it feels like every time they’re ready to start working on something, there are new rumblings that they’ll finally be put out of their homes.

“Where they’ve said, you know, ‘This is the end. We’re going to do something,'” Conerton said. “And then they don’t. We’ve been lucky that way, because it’s a great place. And everybody, you know, we get along. It’s a real neighborhood.”

Ironically, the less-than-ideal condition of the homes is one reason the city and state say it’s ripe for redevelopment.

For now, city officials are waiting for the governor’s signature on the bill. After that, the Juneau Assembly will have some decisions to make about what to do with Telephone Hill.

An earlier version of this story was published with a historical photo taken from Telephone Hill. It’s been replaced with one of Telephone Hill.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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