Some planning alternatives for developing 830 acres of city property on the north end of town received a cool reception from the Sitka Assembly and the Sitka Planning Commission, during a joint session on Wednesday night (6-3-20).
The high costs of development, combined with uses that favored tourism and high-end homeowners, left city officials feeling a little underwhelmed.
Some of the best in the business put their minds to Sitka’s No Name Mountain project. So said local landscape architect Monique Anderson of Anderson Land Planning, about the Seattle-based firm Jones & Jones Architects who led the effort, supported by PND Engineers and the McDowell Group.
“So tonight you’re going to hear a healthy dose of some visionary ideas, you’re going to hear some common sense, and some cold, hard truths,” Anderson said.
And it was those cold, hard truths that cast shade over much of the discussion. The site is predominantly wetlands, or steep hillside. The best property is adjacent to a private cruise dock, and seems ripe with investment potential, if Sitka had an extra $3.5 million to spare to put in utilities.
It begged the question: Does Sitka need more expensive waterfront development?
“Due to challenging site conditions and high construction costs, housing development in the study area is unlikely to provide much, if any, affordable housing,” said Charlie Scott, a planner with Jones & Jones. “However parts of the study area could be developed to provide high-end homes, with views, for which there is apparently demand.”
The Old Sitka Cruise terminal is right in the middle of the No Name Mountain Study Area, and some of the more visionary planning stemmed from that fact. Heather Haugland, with the McDowell Group, urged assembly members and commissioners to think about Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point, with its restaurants, shops, and gondola.
“The waterfront portion is pretty ideally suited for the cruise market,” said Haugland. “The dock is right there, and the site offers the kinds of recreational opportunities that are appealing to passengers. Before covid hit, cruise volume was supposed to increase quite a bit over the next couple of years. Assuming that it will eventually recover from covid, there is a need to disperse passengers over a broad area, and not have them all in shuttles on HPR at the same time.”
But again, whatever amenities were created in the area for recreational tourism would ultimately be up to investors.
No Name Mountain has been in the public eye for a long time for something far more mundane — rock. Quarrying rock out of view is a possibility there. But Scott said planners heard a different message.
“The two available quarries in Sitka seem to have plenty of available rock, and that would not necessitate opening up a new quarry site somewhere else,” he said.
Mayor Gary Paxton was disappointed that affordable housing wasn’t a realistic option in No Name Mountain, but he encouraged local planners to revisit land on the north benchlands on Kramer Avenue for that purpose.
Assembly member Richard Wein leaned toward housing in No Name Mountain, but he was hoping for something more unique out of the planning process.
“So I think we’re really at a critical juncture where we have to think about the future and what we want Sitka to become,” Wein said. “I don’t want to be overflow from Ketchikan and Juneau. And I think that here in Sitka we have so many assets and so much beauty that we can develop things in a much better way. And there is nothing that really changed in the report from any previous reports: You have the wetlands, you have this interesting topography, and all of this stuff was all known before.”
The interesting topography is one reason why recreational tourism has risen to the top of the planning process, since the physical development of the site would be minimal. During public testimony, however, Clyde Bright urged the Planning Commission to stay on point.
“Leaving it the way it is has nothing to do with economic growth,” Bright argued. “It seems like a waste of money to me. They should have come back with how to develop this land.”
Tribal citizen and elder Harvey Kitka was also concerned with leaning too hard into tourism. He cautioned that Ketchikan and Juneau had done that, and were now paying a price. Former Tribal Council member Tom Gamble also urged commissioners to think realistically.
“We’re talking about trying to expand a tourism industry that we’re not sure is going to exist in five years,” Gamble said. “Will there still be people traveling? We don’t know. Do we want Sitka to still be thriving? Yes. So I think that there are other alternatives that the Planning Commission should be seeking. The plan itself, as Mr. Bright had said, was for economic development, for affordable homes. It sounds to me like Harbor Point is prime real estate for people who can already afford high-end homes. And that’s not what we need here. We need to reduce the rates for citizens who are already living here.”
Except for commissioner Victor Weaver, who said it was important to solicit new ideas, the Planning Commission was reluctant to back the plan, and didn’t readily embrace it. This is an exchange between commissioner Darrell Windsor, special projects manager Scott Brylinsky, and city planner Amy Ainslie.
Windsor — I’m trying to wrap my mind around what is “recreational tourism.” The only thing I can picture is a hiking trail or a campground. Is there anything else that I’m missing?
Brylinsky — It would be guided — for lack of a better word — recreational activities for fees. So it’s not just us going out and hiking the trails, but rather visitors going out and hiking the trails and paying a fee to a vendor, and then part of that fee going to the city.
Windsor — Still, basically it’s just campgrounds and trails.
Ainslie — There’s a range of recreational tourism. It can be very low impact in terms of campgrounds and trails. Those are generally the lower development end. Higher-end development could include things like ropes courses, zip lines, trams — mountain biking trails are kind of in the middle. So, depending on what the city wants to see, and what the public thinks is an appropriate level of development, and what the appetite is from private industry along that spectrum, there are some options there.
Brylinsky advised commissioners that they didn’t have to adopt the plan its entirety, but could pick and choose when making decisions about the property. That was reassuring to commission chair Chris Spivey.
“I don’t want to lock in this entire chunk of property into a plan that so far, what I’m seeing, a good chunk of it is a negative,” Spivey said.
The No Name Mountain consultant team next will finalize the plan based on input received at the meeting, and submit a final document by the end of their contract on June 15.
The project has been underway since last December.