Aug. 25, 2003 – When is an aging building a historic treasure, and when is it a crime-fraught health and fire hazard, a "deathtrap"?
Opinions were sharply divided Monday as the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee met to hear from agencies and programs with a stake in the territory's cultural, aesthetic and environmental future.
Claudette Lewis, assistant commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, called the meeting the "first time in 30 years where everybody got together to hear what we have to say, not to discuss a bill." This was committee chair Louis Hill's avowed purpose, and it was a popular decision, with about 25 preservation representatives filling the chambers.
Although a current project of the Governor's Abandoned Vehicle and Beautification Task Force in the Savan district came under fire from several of the preservationists and dominated much of the day's discussions, other concerns stemmed from the debate.
All parties, private and public, agreed on the need to revise property tax assessment of older buildings to encourage property owners to rehabilitate them. Vendors Plaza, Rothschild Francis "Market" Square and Main Street were targets of preservationists' criticism.
Vendors Plaza took the lion's share of abuse, with Edith deJongh Woods referring to as a "rat-infested" area with a "honky-tonk" appearance and an "eyesore at the entrance of our town."
Felipe Ayala, program coordinator for the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission's "Paint, Scrape and Rejuvenate" program and a longtime disciple of Woods, agreed: "It looks like a slum," he said. "We want the town to look like Rodeo Drive, not the banks of the Ganges" — references, respectively, to a swank shopping area in Beverly Hills, California, and to the river in India.
The high price of painting
Enrique Rodriguez, St. Thomas Historical Trust president, said he owns a building downtown which he had refused to paint "because I knew my property taxes would immediately increase." Under pressure from neighbors, Rodriguez said, he painted the building — and "indeed, my property taxes went up by 800 percent."
Woods and others said property owners should be encouraged to renovate, not be penalized for doing so. She suggested that those who restore historic buildings be given a tax rebate.
Woods and James O'Bryan, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and chair of the governor's task force, locked horns repeatedly throughout the hearing.
O'Bryan and St. Thomas Deputy Police Chief Elvin Fahie defended their efforts to clean up Savan. Both said that getting property owners to do something about their derelict houses is not an easy task. The weekend before last, O'Bryan announced in a release that the task force last week would "begin the demolition of abandoned houses" in the Savan and Garden Street areas for which approval had been secured from the appropriate government agencies. (See the St. Thomas Source report "Task force to tear down abandoned houses".)
Fahie said when such dwellings pose a threat to public health and safety, authorities must act to protect the public. "Some of them obstruct traffic, preventing fire engines from getting through. People must be responsible," he said.
"I'm a policeman," Fahie stressed,"and it's my job to protect people."
O'Bryan said he and police officer have walked through Savan and talked with property owners and identified houses that pose a threat to peace and safety. "We have permits, the documents to tear down these dwellings," he said, pointing to a 5-inch stack of papers before him. He said described some of the structures as "diseased crack houses used by criminals."
Woods wasn't having any of that. She called Savan a "historic site created in 1754 by freed blacks who constructed the many vernacular structures which have survived for 150-200 years, and through countless hurricanes." But, she said, "at the rate Mr. O'Bryan's bulldozers are destroying them, there won't be any left."
Then she added: "However, I forgive him because it is either ignorance or insensitivity."
Woods said the Barnaba Well in Savan, a site formerly used as a lectern by politicians and a declared V.I. landmark of historical significance, is recognized today only as "a sewer." She said there is no sign identifying the well, and its cover only "has large letters, 'Sewer.'"
Woods, the author and illustrator of "The 3 Quarters of the Town of Charlotte Amalie," a book published in 1989 on the architecture and history of downtown structures built before 1937, said on Monday that no historic building should ever be torn down. "They should all be renovated, and perhaps used for public housing," she said.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Roosevelt David told O 'Bryan: "I get the impression that your task force is out there just to knock down buildings."
In reply, O'Bryan cited the bizarre case of a building which he said was being used to raise a pack of pit bulls. He said it was about a block away from a daycare center. "When I told the Human Services commissioner that at a Government House meeting, she immediately went to the phone and ordered the daycare center closed" until the situation was corrected, he said.
Protection vs. preservation
"We have Fire Service personnel running out in the middle of the night to put out fires that start in these places while the preservation people are home asleep," O'Bryan told David. "If that is insensitive, so be it."
He continued: "There was a time when the government was paralyzed. The time to act is now when a 150-year-old building is rotting and the roof is crumbling and it has become a crack-house and a fire hazard putting people at risk."
O'Bryan said an older man came up to him recently in Savan and thanked him for being able to walk his street "safely."
David asked O'Bryan what had happened to the $250,000 the Legislature had appropriated for repair of the Market Square bungalow shortly after it collapsed in April. Earlier, Chaneel Callwood-Daniel, who chairs the St. Thomas -St. John Historic Preservation Commission, had said the commission hoped to have the structure back in place for used in V.I. Carnival 2004.
"Can't we do better than that?" David asked.
O'Bryan said he wasn't certain the money actually existed but said "the demolition is moving forward."
Callwood-Daniel said the Yssis Group, of which she is co-owner, is planning the redesign of Market Square, a project started several years ago, and that it should have the design ready to put out to bid by the end of this year.
Ayala said "education" is key to understanding how to deal with the structures in Savan. He said the second phase of the ALBC "Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate" program has begun with the identification of buildings for restoration in Savan. He said he wants to create "little pockets of beauty," such as the program recently did on Back Street.
In a spirited presentation, Ayala explained the success of the program's first phase — how property owners had been approached and what a difference it has made on Back Street. (See St. Thomas Source report "Back Street: The old becomes new").
Woods had criticism for the National Park Service system, too. A sympathetic Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who chaired the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee in the previous three Legislatures, said he is preparing legislation to crea
te a territorial park system. "I see it as taking away the need to depend on the NPS," he said, adding that he is seeing input from Planning and Natural Resources Department authorities.
But Donastorg also took issue with Woods's criticisms, suggesting she consider leading a not-for-profit organization to assist with preservation efforts.
The price of disrespecting the past
Moving away from the often-heated floor debate, Hill said: "People have asked me why I take such an interest in preservation." He said he has a "very personal" reason.
"I am from Dominica," he said, "My mother is a Carib Indian. I have witnessed first hand what happens to a people who have no preserved history, no architecture, no culture; people who have been stripped of their heritage through new developments. We need to sustain, to preserve history, architecture, culture as a people. If we disrespect and destroy our past, then in effect we are destroying our history and depriving our children."
In the Virgin Islands, he continued, "We have a real opportunity" to preserve the heritage of the territory's people. "On St. Croix, windmills are crumbling; tamarind trees are growing though old buildings in Frederiksted. We just walk right past them. We have a responsibility to sensitize people. We have a wonderful opportunity; we have grid architecture."
However, Hill said, "the government places very little, if any, resources toward preservation. Look at Myron Jackson's budget — it is 100 percent federally funded." Jackson is director of the V.I. Historic Preservation Office.
"There is no local interest," Hill continued. "Look at Main Street. The sidewalks are crumbling. If we can't take care of that — this is the capital, then what?"
Later, Hill said he has drafted legislation to appropriate 1 percent of Economic Development Commission beneficiaries' taxes for a library and museum fund. At the moment, he said, the fund gets its revenues from library fines, and "probably has about $2 in it."
Committee members present for the hearing were Sens. David, Donastorg, Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone. Two members, Sens. Carlton Dowe and Ronald Russell, were excused. The other member, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, was absent.
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