Despite safety concerns, downtown Juneau apartment project clears major hurdle

a sign
A sign sits at the site of a future 72-unit apartment building downtown on Wednesday. The project was OK’d for a conditional land-use permit by the city planning commission on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

A project meant to bring dozens of new apartments to downtown Juneau cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the city planning commission approved a conditional land-use permit for a 72-unit apartment building despite safety concerns from some top city officials. 

Juneau resident Ke Mell told the planning commission she thinks the project will be “a tremendous asset to downtown.”

“I realize there are significant technical challenges and maybe they all haven’t been addressed yet, but I would definitely be very supportive of seeing this move forward,” she said.

Of the eight commissioners, only one voted against the permit. But that decision came after hours of discussion.

The six-story building is set to be located on three vacant lots on Gastineau Avenue, just uphill from the downtown library. Capital City Fire Rescue Chief Rich Etheridge said the department would not support the project due to its location. 

“It is a higher risk of damaging personal vehicles, damaged equipment, getting equipment stuck, not being able to access people having emergencies,” he said. “Landslides definitely, especially this day and age, that’s always a concern.”

Gastineau Avenue is a dead-end street, and there isn’t an easy turnaround point. The project’s site is on a downhill slope toward South Franklin Street on the Mount Roberts hillside. It’s a short walk away from the place where a landslide damaged homes and displaced residents last year. 

a hillside
The site for a future 72-unit apartment building in downtown Juneau. The project was OK’d for a conditional land-use permit by the city planning commission on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

Etheridge shared a memo outlining several public safety concerns, pointing to vehicle congestion, limited parking, natural hazards and the lack of easy access. And he said increasing the number of units in the area would only make those problems worse. 

City staff also recommended the commission deny the permit, citing similar concerns. 

The applicant from private development group Gastineau Lodge Apartments LLC, Steve Soenksen, said much of the building will be for workforce housing. Of the new units, 61 will be studios and another eight will be handicapped-accessible. All are slated to be fully furnished and ready by the summer of 2025. 

Only seven parking spots will be constructed for the 72 units. However, that’s seven more than is required per the zoning in the area. The developers say an additional two bike racks will be built nearby. 

Vehicle congestion and lack of parking was a concern for Commissioner Mandy Cole. 

“This design works if people aren’t bringing their cars,” she said.

Commissioner Paul Voelckers voted in favor of the project. He said it should be celebrated for what it will mean for downtown housing. 

“At the end of the day, we all understand and have all been working at some fashion to increase housing downtown for years and years,” he said. “I think this has historically been a successful site for housing.”

The project was granted $700,000 in a predevelopment loan from the city’s affordable housing fund in October 2022. It will still need to go through a building permitting process before construction can begin. 

Fire code requires a second emergency access point. Jill Maclean, the city’s director of community development, said she is unsure what that would be.

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