EDITORIAL - What is the Gov't's plan for downtown Kingston?
YESTERDAY'S REPORT by this newspaper of the decision by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to sell the old Machado Complex in downtown Kingston renews, for us, the subject of the Government's plan for that section of the city and what, specifically, the Simpson Miller administration intends to bring to the table.
Indeed, a plan for downtown is one of the things on which the Government has been largely quiet in the six months it has been in office.
For upwards of four decades, accelerated by the development of the New Kingston commercial district, downtown was allowed to descend into physical and social decay. Following in the footsteps of private-sector firms, economically and socially upwardly mobile individuals vacated downtown, causing buildings in large swathes of the city to lie abandoned and/or become occupied by squatters.
But worse, the State seemed to have given up on its central function of providing law and order. Petty criminals, violent extortionists and powerful enforcers filled the vacuum. The Government became victim of its own failures as several of its ministries and agencies joined the trek from downtown.
Sporadic declarations of, and policy actions towards, revival of downtown often faltered, but finally appeared to gain firm traction three years ago when the administration of then Prime Minister Bruce Golding appeared to commit itself to a programme of renewal.
Mr Golding declared a ban on government agencies leaving downtown - a policy that was, unfortunately, only weakly enforced - as well as incentives for construction investment in the city.
The circumstances for downtown's renewal could have been enhanced by the dislodging of the Tivoli Gardens-based crime boss Christopher Coke. That allowed the State to reassert its authority. Indeed, the telecommunications company, Digicel, in the new environment, moved ahead with its planned construction of its headquarters downtown.
It is against that backdrop that the UDC purchased the Machado Complex from the Kingston Restoration Company, saying it would be redeveloped as its headquarters. The corporation's current high-rise headquarters building, with its 200,000 square feet of office space, would be vacated and made available for private-sector development. There has been no rush of bidders for the property, which is, perhaps, understandable, given the country's recession.
Abandonment not an option
But the current environment notwithstanding, this newspaper believes that it would be a mistake to either abandon or slow down the downtown Kingston project. For even in the absence of robust private-sector activity at this time, the Government, we believe, can save substantial sums by relocating many of its agencies downtown.
For instance, three years ago, what we believe to have been an incomplete analysis suggested that the Government paid upwards of J$1.2 billion in rent, mostly for uptown properties. Yet, the Government owns tens of thousands of square feet of unoccupied office space downtown, including in the UDC headquarters, the Oceana Building and the Postal Corporation's Central Sorting Office building.
It can't be terribly expensive to restructure these empty spaces to house government agencies. The spin-off of savings on the Budget and potential social well-being would likely be great.
The question is whether Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is willing to tell public-sector bosses that they have to return downtown.
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