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Whither the redevelopment of downtown Kingston?

Published:Thursday | November 12, 2015 | 12:00 AMJaevion Nelson, Contributor

The preservation and restoration of national heritage sites such as the Ward Theatre should be a major focus of the efforts to redevelop downtown Kingston. Sadly, this will and can only happen when we begin to display greater appreciation for our culture and heritage and their economic value to our development.

The efforts to redevelop downtown Kingston are laden with indolence, indecisiveness and myopia. We have been flirting with this idea for decades; from as early as the late 1960s when the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) engaged Shankland Cox, an international planning and development consultancy firm, to develop a plan that would facilitate the improvement/restoration of the waterfront area.

It's shocking and discomforting that after 50 years and so many plans, downtown Kingston - one of the capital city's primary commercial centres - has not really developed. Far too many buildings have been left idle to become sites for all sorts of activities and dwellings, some have deteriorated, while others have been destroyed. Can you imagine taxpayers have to bear the cost of exorbitant rent 'uptown' while there are unoccupied government-owned buildings downtown that could be used as offices?

Over the years, many entities have been wooed and courted to enlist themselves in this very critical initiative - downtown redevelopment - which has resulted in a number of different plans to attract investments and guide the (re)development process. Some of the stakeholders involved are the Kingston Restoration Company, UDC, Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, the Town and Country Planning Authority, National Housing Development Corporation, Downtown Kingston Management District, Jamaica Manufacturers' Association and Kingston City Centre Improvement Company. However, despite the vast number of players and their individual and collective efforts, it would appear that more lip service and procrastination have been invested than anything else.

The plans are not readily accessible online, but a matrix developed by the International University of the Caribbean (IUC) provides information about the scope and purpose of each redevelopment plan. According to IUC, the plans include Vision 20/20 Master Plan (1994), Institutional Process for Downtown Kingston Revitalisation Plan (2000), Downtown Kingston Business Improvement District: Report of the Kingston Redevelopment Committee (2003), Kingston and St Andrew Sustainable Development Plan - Analytical Study: Environment and Development (2003), Inner City Renewal Plan (2004), and the Kingston City Centre Improvement Company Vision and Concept Redevelopment of the Business Improvement District Area - Downtown Kingston (2007).

Too many plans, too little action. Former World Bank country representative, Giorgio Valentini, highlighted in July 2014 that "there are 10 or 15 different plans" which have all "been done in isolation". The World Bank "has provided funds to finance the creation of a comprehensive master plan, to guide all aspects of this process" (RJR), but this is yet to be complete one year later.

The stakeholders are doing more towards implementing the plans; a lot has happened in the last seven or so years. Digicel built its headquarters, Justice Square is coming to life, and UDC is reportedly seeking private investors to develop residential and commercial properties in the next couple of years. Perhaps we can make these new residential properties affordable to young professionals who continue to be priced out of owning a home, but I digress.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, I continue to question how our national heritage sites and monuments, as well as other buildings of historical and cultural value, have feature in these plans. We cannot allow them to deteriorate much more or be destroyed. Are there stipulations to protect these sites from investors who might want to demolish them to make space for more modern architecture?

I am perturbed by the god-awful state of a Jamaican landmark as the Ward Theatre. Why has it been fÍted with such gross levels of neglect? Is it not the place where our two major political parties - JLP and PNP - were launched? The Ward Theatre should never have been allowed to deteriorate like this! It would be most prudent for this to be a priority for our Government. Maybe some of the $2.5 billion to develop Heroes Park could be used for this. Perhaps we should consider setting up a special fund facility that a percentage of every property sold goes towards the restoration or preservation of national heritage sites. We could also seek the assistance of Cuba or the European Union.

If we are truly proud and free, we must show more appreciation for and invest in our national heritage sites.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.