Proposition 1: Can the city borrow $35 million to build a new Juneau City Hall?

The City and Borough of Juneau’s design team shared this rendering of what a new City Hall building could look like at 450 Whittier Street during a public forum in May 2022. The design is not final.

This question asks voters to authorize the City and Borough of Juneau to borrow up to $35 million to help pay for a new City Hall.

City officials say that if this ballot measure fails, they’ll have to make a major investment to repair the existing City Hall, which dates back to the 1950s.

Public Works and Engineering Director Katie Koester has estimated the cost at about $12 million to keep it viable for another 25 years.

“Some of it is near term, like painting the facade,” she told a Juneau Assembly committee in June. “But you can’t paint the facade without repairing the plaster. You can’t repair the plaster without fixing the windows. Then you need to replace the windows – so it escalates very quickly.”

And the building only houses a fraction of the city’s workers. The city pays $820,000 a year in rent for extra office space in four other downtown buildings.

“When your business plan is to be in business forever, you should own your own building – it just makes economic sense,” City Manager Rorie Watt told the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce in July.

The new City Hall would let the city centralize its office workers and public-facing services, end its leases for extra office space, and free up apartments and other space downtown for the private sector.

The Juneau Assembly has already committed $6.3 million to the project, which has a total estimated cost of $41 million.

If the ballot question passes, the debt would be paid back over time using property tax revenue. City officials don’t think they will need to raise property taxes to cover those payments. That’s because a portion of current property taxes are already earmarked for other long-term debts, some of which will be paid off this fiscal year.

The City and Borough of Juneau’s design team shared this rendering of what a new City Hall building could look like on Whittier Street during a public forum in May 2022. The design is not final.

Wade Bryson is a Juneau Assembly member and unopposed candidate up for reelection. He chairs the Assembly’s Public Works and Facilities Committee, which oversaw a lot of work that led up to this bond proposition. He’s been campaigning for yes votes for this project.

Bryson said he isn’t aware of any organized opposition to the overall concept.

“Where people are disagreeing a little bit is, how do we accomplish that? And, you know, you can nitpick every idea,” Bryson said. “Unfortunately, no one is able to come up with a better idea. And as they have suggested, ‘Go look at this building or that building’ – we did. … This one always came up as a better option.”

Bryson said city staff and the Assembly evaluated and compared 52 different options for replacing city hall. They eventually chose the city’s vacant lot at 450 Whittier Street for the site. The state’s Public Safety Building used to be there. The city used that building as a cold-weather shelter for a few years before tearing it down in 2019.

Juneau's cold weather emergency shelter is in the old Alaska Department of Public Safety Building on Whittier Avenue, pictured here on Dec. 2, 2017, the day after the shelter first opened.
The City and Borough of Juneau used to run a cold weather emergency shelter out of the old Alaska Department of Public Safety Building at 450 Whittier Avenue, pictured here on Dec. 2, 2017. The city tore the building down in 2019. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

Bryson said a major advantage of building new from scratch versus, say, converting the vacant Walmart, is that a new facility is expected to last 100 years.

“Repurposing, as noble as that was, renovating a building – it will cost the city just as much money if not more, and they would get less life and less use out of it,”  he said.

Juneau resident Rob Steedle argued against a new city hall during a public hearing in August. He worked out of City Hall for decades and retired as the city’s community development director in 2018.

Steedle said he understands the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the current setup but thinks telework during the pandemic showed that the city’s office space needs aren’t what they used to be.

“We haven’t seen such a profound shift in the workplace in our lifetimes and that shift isn’t over. There are still many unknowns,” Steedle said. “What we build today may not be what we wish we’d built tomorrow.”

He also said the timing is bad because of the unusually high cost of materials and rising interest rates. He thinks the city has higher priorities.

“I don’t know why we’re investing in office space when we know housing is our most central problem,” he said.

More information about the new City Hall project is available on the city’s website, juneau.org, including conceptual renderings from the design team.

For more reporting and resources on Juneau’s local election, visit KTOO’s local elections page.

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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