Local News

Assembly to vote on Centennial Hall plan

An architect's rendering depicts changes proposed for the front of Centennial Hall. Greenspace is modified, parking is added, and a pedestrian plaza is put in place to the left of and behind the building. (Image from MRV Architects)

When the Sitka Assembly continues its meeting Thursday at Harrigan Centennial Hall, it will vote on a plan to revamp the area around Centennial Hall and Crescent Harbor.

The Assembly heard a presentation Tuesday night on plans for the area. City staff say nothing is finalized, and that the plan is simply to give Assembly members an idea of where the project is headed.

(View the plans, in detail, by clicking here.)

The design includes greenspace, one-way bus lanes, and even some additional parking – all changes that city officials say will keep pedestrians safer. The plan also factors in expansions to both Kettleson Memorial Library and Centennial Hall.

It comes after multiple public meetings, and the work of a feasibility committee that met with the different users of the area – everyone from tour guides to the Sitka Summer Music Festival to groups who regularly hold events inside Centennial Hall.

“Did everybody get everything they wanted? No,” said Fred Reeder, a member of the feasibility committee. “But it was our intent to accommodate the library in its current form, or in an expanded form. So, with this plan, if the library stays the same, this works. If it changes, it works.”

The overall idea behind the plan is to develop a better experience for cruise passengers. Paul Voelckers is president of MRV Architects in Juneau, the firm that came up with the design.

“Right now, it’s no mystery to people that the area right outside of the room where we’re meeting is where the lighter folks disembark, and you’re not met by anything,” he said.

Under the concept presented Tuesday night, that would change. The area would be closed to vehicles on cruise ship days, and closed forever to boat trailers. Municipal engineer Stephen Weatherman said the ramp could still be used for kayaks and loading cargo onto boats already in the water.

Weatherman said alternatives exist for a new ramp: at Sealing Cove, at Eagle Way along Sawmill Creek Road, and at the UAS ramp. The UAS ramp isn’t sloped properly for trailer launching, but Weatherman says it could be developed.

The pricetag for updating the parking lot and the landscaping is about $1.8 million. When you factor in renovations to Centennial Hall and a possible expansion to the Sitka Historical Museum, it’s about $12 million.

“When was the decision made to allocate all the Marine Passenger Fee funding to this?” Assembly member Thor Christianson asked. “Because as I see it, there’s absolutely no point if we pass this in going on to the next item on our agenda, because this sucks up the next six years, minimum.”

Sitka Public Works Director Michael Harmon said the money is not committed, and that he’s simply telling the Assembly the project is eligible for the funding. The project already has more than $6 million dollars in state grants behind it, and Harmon said the city is asking for another $4 million in its legislative priorities this year.

Harmon says his purpose for presenting the plan to the Assembly now is to keep them in the loop. If the Assembly approves the plan, Harmon says work will continue on finalizing the design. The idea is to avoid expensive work now that could be rejected later.

Should the project get the final green light, sometime in the future, money would come from a tax the state imposes on cruise ship passengers. The money, which is sent back to municipalities, must be applied to things that benefit the passengers.

Mayor Cheryl Westover says that’s good for everyone.

“This is our building, and we’re just going to share it for a few months, and those people we’re sharing it with are paying for it. So I think it’s a great win-win,” she said.

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett called the feasibility committee’s work an example of “good public process.”

“I heard grumbling from people, ‘This, that and the other thing isn’t being done,’ and on and on and on. A lot of grumbling,” Hackett said. “And as the process went on the grumbling subsided, and I think people are all-around pretty well-satisfied, at least the people who are aware of what’s going on here. And that is the outcome of a good process. So thanks for sticking with it.”

Fred Reeder, on the feasibility committee, agreed, saying the plan before the Assembly is the best attempt possible at accommodating all of those who gave their input.

“And I can tell you, if you tweak this, you cause all kinds of other problems,” Reeder said, to chuckles from the room. “Because we’ve been through them all. This is the best you could hope for.”

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