The City Council voted on Monday to rezone the historic property of the former Jesse Lee Home from Multi-Family Residential to Park. The rezoning complies with the official recommendation of the Planning & Zoning Commission and follows a recent community survey conducted by the City wherein over 55 percent of the 360 respondents wished the property to be made into a park.
Some debate took place in Council chambers over whether the entirety of the land would need to be zoned as park to comply with the terms of the $1.07 million State grant awarded to the City for demolition, abatement of hazardous materials, and the construction of a memorial to the original structure. The site, notable as the birthplace of the Alaska state flag and the home of its designer, Benny Benson, must house a memorial by June 30, 2021, in order for the City to meet the terms of the grant. Community Development Director Jackie Wilde stated that no monument could be built on the site without rezoning.
“To use the money, we have to follow our own code, and our code says that a memorial needs to be in a park,” she said.
Several voices in the community have suggested various alternative uses for the land, with some wishing to see portions retained for housing, some wishing a rezoning to Commercial, and still others wishing to establish a school on the site. Mayor Christy Terry put forth the recommendation that the Council place the property’s fate before the citizens of Seward in a popular vote, an idea echoed by Vice Mayor Tony Baclaan, but Council Members Sue McClure and John Osenga pointed out that community input has been a driving factor throughout every step of the process, contributing heavily to the recommendations of both the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning & Zoning Commission.
“What I would suggest, then, is that we move forward to making it a park because we do have the ability to change it in the future, and we can protect our funds that we have now,” said Osenga, “but I would say, instead of an election, if you want to have a work session on it again, and just have everyone make comments on it again, then do that. But I don’t know that an election is really needed. I mean, it sounds to me like everyone is just looking for more public comment, even though we’ve had years of public comment on this.”
Community Development Director Wilde stressed the urgency of the timeline, stating that any further delays could push the process well past the June 30 deadline, jeopardizing the grant.
“A lot of people think that this is a rushed progression,” she said, “but it really isn’t when you sit and look at the fact that we’re on a timeline for demo, and in order to get whatever remaining funds used, we would have to bring those forward, you’re talking, March, April, May, June. June 30th is the deadline.”
Before the unanimous vote to rezone, the Council decided to further engage the community in future decisions, with plans to convene a joint meeting of City Council, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning & Zoning Commission.