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Editorial | Urban renewal and the downtown project

Published:Friday | August 12, 2022 | 12:06 AM

Based on reporting by this newspaper, there is another push for the redevelopment of the western section – the old market district – of downtown Kingston. This time, it seems, it might actually happen.

We have three immediate observations about the initiative. First, we hope that the project, or some variation thereof, is implemented. Too many of these ideas, for too long, have been stillborn.

Further, from a broader policy perspective, we are concerned that, notwithstanding the apparent engagement of specific interest groups during the initiative’s planning phase, the process has not been sufficiently transparent. The involvement of community folk was, at best, limited. And neither is the specific project proposal, at this point, available for public scrutiny.

Critically, too, this newspaper, and the wider public, we expect, does not have a clear sense of where, and how, the downtown initiative fits within the Government’s larger policy of urban renewal. If it has one.

Downtown Kingston, the older section of the capital, like too many parts of urban Jamaica, including the one targeted for renewal, has grown decayed and gritty and overrun with criminality. It is largely a no-go area after dark.

PLANS EMERGED

Over decades, plans have emerged for the renewal of the downtown market district. There was developed by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 violent security operation in nearby Tivoli Gardens, aimed at capturing the notorious crime boss and political ‘don’, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. Seventy people died. That project was, in part, to be the social intervention to bring economic development, and law and order, in a volatile section of the city. It would fill a vacuum left by Coke and his militia.

After the initial stirrings and modest, mostly cosmetic, rehabilitation of Coronation Market, the project atrophied. Recently, a private-sector consortium, led by businessman Glen Christian, complained of government lethargy in responding to their efforts, including spending their own money, to revive the downtown initiative.

But according to the Financial Gleaner’s report on Wednesday, there is a new master plan, with a price tag of J$300 billion, for the buildout of infrastructure, commercial space and homes (8,000) in a public-private partnership arrangement that has the prospect of financing from the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Private consultants designed the project, which, if implemented, will be undertaken by a single special-purpose vehicle, rather than government agencies doing the bits that are normally within their portfolios.

We celebrate the fact that things have reached this far, to the point where the IFC is doing preliminary evaluations of the project . But it is disquieting that the vast majority of people who are likely to be affected by it were totally out of the loop – without an inkling of what was contemplated. That is not best practice in transparent governance.

Take the example of the Canadian city of Toronto, where things are different. On a recent day, a walk around the city revealed several large signs with pictures of the specific area’s cityscape, as well as artists’ impressions of proposed developments, including land, use of the building and dimensions of the units. Notable, those signs also have the names and addresses of the developers, the projects’ reference number, and the names and telephone numbers of the city department and officials with oversight for the application. The date, time and address for hearings on the projects are also on those signs.

Given Jamaica’s history of developers flouting planning regulations and citizens being unaware of developments until they are under way, it is the kind of transparency Jamaica’s planning authorities and licensing institutions would do well to adopt.

REMAIN IN THE DARK

On the matter of the downtown market district redevelopment, while it appears that it contemplate the question of housing for people in the immediately adjacent communities, we remain in the dark about how the administration plans to address Jamaica’s larger crisis of urban decay, and the fact that around a third of the country’s population (900,000 people) live in squatter, or informal, settlements. Many of their homes are tumbling, urban tenements.

This newspaper, as we have made clear many times, does not believe that this is a crisis to be addressed piecemeal. It demands an overarching policy and urgent action, including a sharp focus on residential communities, many of which have salvageable homes and basic infrastructure, such as road, water, electricity, and, in some cases, limping sewage systems.

It is possible, we believe, to leverage the funds of government housing institutions to create partnerships with private financial companies, global partners, domestic developers and existing property owners for a massive and sustained assault on urban decay. The Government might even consider a moratorium of state-financed greenfield developments for a period, say five years, while it concentrates on urban renewal.

This must be a priority, way ahead of planned new cities on the island’s “most fertile … A1 soil”, as will be the case of Bernard Lodge, on the St Catherine plains, which is earmarked for a township of 17,000 inhabitants, as well as industrial and commercial buildings. Or, other big housing projects that continue to encroach upon Jamaica’s limited and diminishing arable land, too much of which is already under concrete and steel.