Wrangell Sentinel -

By Dan Rudy 

Institute ideas begin to take shape


Submitted Photo

Juneau architect Chris Mertl explains to onlookers one of seven proposed designs for the Institute during a presentation March 2.

Use of Wrangell's former Institute property continues to take shape after a pair of town meetings last week.

Acquired by the city in 1995, the 134-acre property has potential for residential development, and the city last year commissioned a team of architects, statisticians and engineers to begin looking into a master plan. The public meetings on Feb. 29 and March 2 were the first step in that process,

"I think they went really well," economic director Carol Rushmore said of the sessions. "There was some really good input and some really consistent input, which helps."

The design team included project lead Chris Mertl of Corvus Design, architect James Bibb of NorthWind Architects, analyst Meilani Schijvens of Rain Coast Data and surveyor Greg Scheff of R&M Engineering. Together they took input from the public and explained some concepts at the first meeting, working the next two days in open door sessions to draw up some preliminary sketches. By the second meeting the design team had whittled down their ideas from 15 to seven concepts, which were presented to the public for comment at the Nolan Center.

One of the more commented-on layouts featured a centralized vocational education facility with some roadside retail space, and a large assisted living campus. High-density housing further to the property's southeast would be offset by single-family units to the north.

The layout would accommodate a "bridge" into senior care, Bibb explained, affording older residents the opportunity to live in the neighborhood a bit independently before eventually transitioning to assisted care.

Demographically Alaska is an aging state, with Southeast having a higher proportion of older residents than the rest of the state. Wrangell is at the far end of this trend, with an average age of 48 to the state's average of 34 years.

In a housing needs survey conducted by Wrangell Cooperative Association last year, senior housing was among the top priorities listed. But housing availability in general is a need in Wrangell, particularly among renters, with current properties at near- or full-capacity.

The city has not undertaken a formal housing study, but concurs with WCA's findings.

"I think what the Tribe's results are would be similar to the wider community," Rushmore said.

Addressing the housing issues of the present also ties in to what Wrangell hopes to achieve in the future, with similar design projects completed for the waterfront and underway for the old mill property at 6-Mile Zimovia. At the latter, the city is looking to eventually acquire and develop the site for industrial and maritime uses. Better housing accommodation would be necessary before the city could expect to draw in additional workers and families.

"I think it ties in because we're looking at the housing component," Rushmore explained. "There needs to be growth in our housing. We are very limited for our short-term rentals."

Other concepts being presented found different configurations for the Institute property, all focused on addressing the community's identified housing needs. For example, one nicknamed as the "Traditional" design for ease of reference featured an assisted senior care facility and some medium density housing, with some opportunity for small retail at the highway. A straightforward grid of approximately acre-sized lots maximized space for single-family and starter homes, with pedestrian thoroughfares linking the two neighborhoods.

"It's kind of Anytown U.S.A.," Mertl explained.

Another, simply called "The Institute," evokes the layout of the original facility, with an assisted living center, retail area and community center dominating access to the highway at the property's north end. Behind and around that was a mixture of single-family lots on cul-de-sacs with cottage-style housing and more medium-density housing.

In a similar layout, "Campus Greens" instead emphasizes educational opportunities, with the possible vocational learning center where the Institute was. Some retail and senior housing would be available to the south, with further clusters of cottages and small family units inland. More space would be set aside for green space, and the neighborhoods would be more buffered from the highway than in other scenarios.

Submitted Photo

Proposal D for development at the former Institute property was among those getting lots of positive feedback from residents during last week's presentation at the Nolan Center. The plan incorporates a combination of residential, assisted care and educational uses for the 134-acre property.

All seven of the concepts incorporated elements and ideas gathered from community members at the Monday evening meeting and subsequent workshops. Bibb, Mertl and Scheff then found ways to fit these different components using the geography available to best effect, and which could also be more easily developed in phases.

"More than likely there'll be an initial first push," Bibb explained.

A modestly-sized group of residents were on hand to review and comment on the draft ideas, highlighting what they liked, preferred or else detested about any individual components. Heading into another round of sessions next month, Mertl said the team is still up for suggestions from residents who were unable to attend last week.

Design concepts and contact information are available online at a blog dedicated to the project, http://www.wrangell-institute.blogspot.com. In the meantime, the team will begin putting numbers to the concepts, evaluating costs and market potential. They will return in April for a follow-up presentation and draft proposal, again open to the public.


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