Coalition Forms to Address Downtown Juneau Problems

Buildings beyond the Gastineau Apartments need paint and other work. The apartment building burned in November 2012. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Buildings beyond the Gastineau Apartments need paint and other work. The apartment building burned in November 2012. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The image of Juneau’s downtown ranges from the glamour of huge cruise ships and stores catering to tourists, to street people with nowhere to go.

An informal coalition has formed representing business and property owners, residents and social service organizations to tackle some of the issues.

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Bruce Denton has had an office in the Senate building on South Franklin Street for about 30 years. In May, he spent a lot of time outside painting, watching over downtown.

“I had no idea how bad it had become.”

Now he’s a man with a mission.

A video

Denton asked filmmaker Pat Race to produce a short video of some of the things he’d seen from his perch.

“My marching orders to Pat was that I didn’t want it to be an indictment of any one group. I just basically wanted the bad and the ugly of what was going on downtown,” Denton says.

The bad and the ugly?

“It’s everything,” he says.

The video starts at Front and Franklin streets and pans the burned-out Gastineau Apartments.

“You look up Franklin Street and think why would I want to go there?”

Pat Race calls his short video a snapshot of downtown.

“I filmed everything from like puke and poop and people passed out on the doorsteps of businesses and broken windows and busted up sidewalks. It really ran the gamut,” Race says. “It’s just a deterioration of attention.”

It even picks up the north wall of Denton’s Senate building.

“It looks horrible,” Denton says. “I thought, ‘Pat, why did you do that to me,’ and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is what we’re talking about. We all need to take ownership.’”

Race deliberately shot the footage over a short period of time.

“It’s not cherry-picked, it’s not all the greatest hits from the last month. It’s everything that just happened within a few days,” he says. “And it’s pretty pervasive.”

Race also owns a business downtown. He says he wasn’t surprised at the images he saw in his camera, but at how long he’d shut them out.

“I think the thing that surprised me was how much I had my blinders on now,” he says.  “I think once you start looking around it’s pretty appalling how many cigarette butts are on the ground, and how things haven’t been painted in quite a while and just what we let people get away with in a public space.”

Denton calls it “just a lot of obnoxious activity, a lot of people operating below polite society.”

An informal coalition

For the past month, Denton and Race have taken their concerns and the video to small groups of business and property owners, a few CBJ staff and a couple of elected officials. Even the Downtown Neighborhood Association has joined.

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson dubs the informal coalition DIG, for Downtown Improvement Group. Earlier this month, Denton and Race met with Johnson and Lt. David Campbell. They don’t need a video to understand the issues.

“Typically, what we encounter in the downtown area is a lot of public nuisance-type complaints. Alcohol is a contributing factor to it,” he says. “A lot of people are consuming alcohol.”

Downtown Juneau consumes a lot of police presence, especially on nights and weekends.

When he steps out of his police lieutenant role, Campbell admits downtown is sometimes an unpleasant place to be.

“As a citizen and a parent, I don’t know, there’s just an uncomfortable air about it,” he says.

Campbell says Denton is on the right track. He points to a study done years ago calledBroken Windows.

“You have an area that’s got broken windows and graffiti, it gives an unconscious message that nobody cares,” he says.

And such problems grow. The reverse, of course, is well-cared for property, an inviting downtown.

“You keep places clean, you know you have the impression that somebody cares about it, is watching it. And as you’re able to get ownership and get back, it actually has a positive effect toward these low-level, quality-of-life issue crimes,” Campbell says.

Cleaning up is a start

As Denton spreads his message, he says peer pressure is the way to start cleaning up downtown.

“If your neighbor on both sides of your building cleans up their act, it kind of puts a lot of pressure on you to do the same thing,” he says.

While a general clean-up may be the best way to start addressing the issues, Denton and other members of the downtown group know it’s superficial; the tougher solutions may take years.

Those conversations are just getting underway.

Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a series on downtown Juneau issues. You can read the second part here: Bring your brooms and scrub brushes; downtown cleanup is Friday

Rosemarie Alexander is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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