Assembly both helps, hinders affordable housing battle

  • By Sam DeGrave
  • Thursday, December 1, 2016 9:31pm
  • News

The Juneau Assembly recently took one step forward and at least half a step back in its fight to make housing more affordable in the capital city.

During its Monday night meeting, the Assembly supported one initiative to increase downtown housing after it slightly weakened a plan to increase Juneau’s affordable housing stock.

The Assembly approved the sale of the North Franklin Street parking lot for Eagle Rock Ventures LLC, to a Seattle-based development firm. ERV plans to build about 30 units of affordable workforce housing on the lot, which the city will sell for $530,000.

Nearly a dozen members of the public, most of whom own businesses downtown, opposed the sale. Like several other people who testified, downtown resident and business owner Joannie Waller said that the loss of the 23 parking spots in the lot would be detrimental to her business, Northern Oasis Wellness SPA.

“People have cars. Until that is changed, new housing development needs to include parking requirement,” Waller said. “Parking and housing go together like peanut butter and jelly.”

Several Assembly members acknowledged that choosing between parking and housing for downtown — an area critically short of both — wasn’t easy.

Speaking in favor of the ordinance, Assembly member Jesse Kiehl, who pointed out several times that he lives downtown, said that the city’s governing body was tasked with “balancing between bad problems and worse problems.” He and five of his peers decided that housing, not parking, was the worse problem.

The Assembly passed the ordinance with a 6–3 vote. Mayor Ken Koelsch and Assembly members Mary Becker and Debbie White voted against it, all expressing concerns about parking.

With the backing of the Assembly, White directed the city attorney to draft an additional ordinance that would dedicate the proceeds of the parking lot sale to a special city parking-development fund.

A short while before approving the sale of the parking lot, the Assembly voted to minimize the impact of the city’s Housing Action Plan, a document drafted to spur the exact type of housing development ERV has planned for North Franklin Street.

Last year, Juneau’s Affordable Housing Commission commissioned czb LLC, a Virginia-based planning firm, to develop a plan that the city could use to bring down the high cost of housing.

Rob Steedle, director of the city’s Community Development Department, has called the plan, which lays out several options for loosening Juneau’s “stuck” housing market, a “come-to-Jesus call.”

The Assembly debate Monday hinged not on whether the plan was good, but whether it should be adopted into the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a guiding document that provides direction for city staff, boards and commissions, such as the city’s Planning Commission.

Mandy Cole, a member of the Affordable Housing Commission, testified in favor of the Housing Action Plan during the meeting, calling it a “buffet of suggestions and ideas” that the city can implement to encourage housing development.

Dave Hanna, who owns Alaska Concrete and Casting, took a different stance when he spoke to the Assembly Monday night. If adopted into the Comprehensive Plan, the Housing Action Plan would create an additional layer of regulation that could hinder development, he said.

Assembly member Debbie White and several other Assembly members took the same stance.

“We’re talking about taking away the free market,” she said, speaking against the plan. “Adopting this and putting it into the Comprehensive Plan isn’t going to make things better; it’s going to make things worse.”

According to the Housing Action Plan, Juneau doesn’t have a free housing market, a point that Assembly member Loren Jones raised. According to the plan, Juneau’s housing market has been propped up by various incentives and subsidies in the past.

Becker said that she found several things in the plan objectionable and moved to approve it by resolution rather than ordinance, a distinction that gives the plan slightly less punch, according to several city officials.

Proponents of the Housing Action Plan, such as Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski, argued that it should be incorporated into the city’s Comprehensive Plan, or it shouldn’t be adopted at all.

“If there are things in it that we don’t agree with, we should change them, not debate over whether they have slightly less weight as a resolution or slightly more weight as an ordinance,” she said.

Assembly member Jerry Nankervis responded, saying that the Assembly would be unable to make all of the changes he deemed necessary in one night. He then voted, along with four of his peers, in support of Becker’s motion, adopting the plan by resolution with a 5–4 vote.

Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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