Ronald Thwaites | Rethink Heroes Park
All that transpired at the town hall meeting last Tuesday should encourage us to rethink the entire idea of developing Heroes Park and its environs.
First of all, despite the Government's crowing, we are still a highly indebted and grossly income-unequal people. We need to reduce our owings rather than borrowing more - and that includes even relatively cheap Chinese money. Further, when it comes to our own money, we need to prioritise expenditure far more rigorously than before. Education and health need more, and agriculture requires additional capital.
So when the Chinese come offering the grand design for Heroes Park, Allman Town, Campbell Town, Kingston Gardens and Woodford Park - Parliament, museum and all - we have to be careful that our usual tendency for 'high chest' might lead us to be seduced.
The grand concept which the Urban Development Corporation has shown me is very grand, indeed, but it is neither practical nor affordable.
Let us start over with a more modest plan. And this time begin with the people's needs first rather than last - that is, after we have built ourselves a 'stush' Parliament and maybe some other monuments.
Housing conditions in the neighbourhoods to be affected need urgent renewal. Residential land is indeed scarce because of commercial encroachment and a complete absence of urban planning. Despite this, there are vibrant communities, schools, churches, small businesses with aged but renewable infrastructure. All these need improvement, not destruction.
Last Tuesday's panel needed the representative from the National Housing Trust (NHT), not the person from the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation who had nothing to contribute. The NHT is so bursting with working people's money that central government can tax us more by raiding it of billions every year under the subterfuge of 'Budget support'.
Starting right now, the NHT ought to provide a modest grant to help settle the ownership of each parcel of land (all have registered titles, by the way), sign up occupants for membership and lend relatively small sums - which will be usually much less than a proposed high-rise, greenfield dwelling would cost - and with the UDC, the JDF and the utility companies, supervise the repair and extension of existing premises.
Facilitate intergenerational mortgages with interest coupons no higher than what the Bank of Jamaica is lending to usurers. Transform dead assets into live, tradeable resources.
That way, we would not need to borrow any foreign money or submit to any foreign designs. We have the money already saved.
That way, we retain and enhance community, family and local enterprise, achieve capital gains and avoid the anomie of high-rise living, rather than realise the reasonable fears of the residents expressed so forcefully at the town hall meeting.
The people want development but they remember, and will resist, a repeat of the cruel political cleansing of Back-o-Wall 50 or so years ago. Urban renewal has to be done a different way this time around.
Having determined a method of relieving the squalor of the dormitory communities, the authorities can then turn to the matter of the Parliament building and the park in general. The terrible inadequacies of George William Gordon House need no rehearsal. It is so inefficent to work there that, up to now, I have supported the proposal for a new structure at Heroes Park along the lines first envisaged by Father Manley.
But given the need to be frugal and modest, it may be better to settle for the Bruce Golding idea of extending and modernising the existing structure. There are several options. Were the adjacent JMA building to be acquired, plenty of fairly modern space for offices, meeting rooms and parking could be quickly added at a fraction of the cost of a new building. Another recourse would be to repossess and recondition Headquarters House which has a chamber quite suitable in size and ambience for a Senate or for committee use.
Any of these alternatives could employ the acumen of local architects and be provided for without strain from the Budget over, say, three years.
Then there remains Heroes Park: now used, for the most part as a sprawling car park, a dust bowl masquerading as a playground, and a cemetery. The car warehouse must go now. It is wholly inconsistent with any concept of an urban recreation area. The park owners, the KSAMC, ought to take shame out of their eyes by following the example of the Housing Trust to create and manage a downtown Emancipation Park that would be like a lung breathing life into Kingston's restoration.
Please let us change the narrative now.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.