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VIPA Unveils Waterfront Renewal Project

July 14, 2005 – After five years of planning, public hearings, drawings, presentations, meetings and no small amount of controversy, the renovation and beautification of the Charlotte Amalie waterfront may actually become a reality.
Arguably the oldest harbor under the American flag and one of the most attractive in the Caribbean, the waterfront surrounding that harbor has long been an eyesore, an embarrassment.
In a May V. I. Port Authority board meeting, Darlan Brin, VIPA executive director, lamented, "No one wants to carry the ball with this project, so it has been dormant for a long time."
In the meantime, Brin has come up with an idea that just might work. At a press briefing Thursday morning, he laid out VIPA's plans to have the project completed and financed by a private developer.
"Frankly," he said, "the authority just doesn't have the funds available, or the capacity to borrow the funds that are needed. It would be a very long time, if we waited for that."
When the plans were first revealed five years ago, Brin said the project would be funded and developed in stages and should ultimately cost between $4 million and $5 million.
Since that time, commerce on the busy waterfront has increased, with local commercial ferries, cruise ship tenders, small recreational vessels, tour vessels, mini-cruise ships and, especially, the ever-increasing mega-yacht visits in the winter months. As many as 16 of the huge, expensive yachts could be seen at one time this past winter.
Brin said the plans now include a series of finger piers to accommodate and ease the boat traffic, and that comes at a considerable cost. The current cost is estimated at $13.5 million, Brin said – $5 million for waterfront improvements and another $8.5 million for the series of piers, which include finger piers and a large pier at each end of the waterfront, one for mega-yachts at the east end, and another for the ferries at the Wilmouth Blyden Terminal on the west end.
A patchwork of pock-marked pavement, sparse lighting, dangerous crosswalks and a generally desolate appearance now greet visitors and locals out for a stroll on the historic downtown waterfront apron. The plans drawn up by the Yssis Architectural Group would give way to new brick crosswalks, imported date palms, flowers, shady pavilions and a revitalization of a onetime boathouse at Kings Wharf, commonly known as the Coast Guard dock.
Brin said VIPA would set the parameters of the plan to be presented to a potential developer to be used in its entirety. VIPA would not lose total control of the waterfront. Those areas are held in trust for the V. I. Government, he said.
Negotiations would provide a potential developer the management of the mega-yacht portion of the waterfront in exchange for financing all of the public improvements. The revenues derived by the private developer from the yachts' docking fees and related provisioning services would be in exchange for the investment in the public facilities.
However, there is one major problem before any work can begin, Brin said. The V. I. Water and Power Authority has a major water line running under the waterfront apron, which forces continual repairs.
Architect John Daniels, a principal of the Yssis group, said he has been meeting with WAPA. "Several proposals are on the table. It depends on which one WAPA can afford and how quickly they can get it done," he said.
Daniels said he has been meeting with WAPA for some time. He said they are considering options including replacing the line in its entirety and using a slip-line, which is a rehabilitation technique. "The options have to be weighed against their cost and what is the long-term best interest for WAPA and for the Port Authority," Daniels said.
Brin stressed that the community will be consulted all along with the project in a series of public meetings with the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, the St. Thomas Historical Trust, Rotary Clubs or "any other organization." Brin said, "I will meet with any group at any time, including Saturdays and Sundays."
After the public meetings, which could start as early as August, Brin said the authority staff would consider the public suggestions, and refine the plans incorporating public input for a period of 15 days after all meetings are concluded, after which the revised plan would be submitted to the VIPA governing board. The board would have 30 days to render a decision.
After a favorable board decision, developers would be solicited. A request for qualified proposal (RFPQ) would be sent out for a period of 60 days. After that, the board has another 90 days to select a developer. Brin said the whole process would likely carry it into June of next year.
That timetable doesn't include the permitting process. Permits must be obtained from the Coastal Zone Management Commission and from the Army Corps of Engineers. The CZM permits must be approved by the Legislature and by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
The plans before the inclusion of the piers were approved by the CZM and by the Historical Preservation Commission.
In August 2001, VIPA had signed a letter of intent with Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises for the two companies to invest $31 million in expanding the Crown Bay dock and developing an adjacent shopping area. Plans were moving ahead when in March 2002, the governor instructed VIPA to call off the deal.
Asked on Thursday morning if he thought the governor might similarly object to the private sector developing the waterfront, Brin smiled. "I am young enough to fight," he said. "I don't have any plans sitting on shelves."
Brin agreed it is a very sensitive issue. "I believe in working with the people, not for the people," he said.
The waterfront area runs between the Edward Wilmoth Blyden Ferry Terminal and the Coast Guard dock adjacent to the Legislature Building.
Referring to several exhibits set up in the board room – including an image of the waterfront in 1864 – Brin gave a rundown of the waterfront's colorful history. He traced it back to the time before any bulkhead existed, and the waterfront was lined with warehouses.
Aside from its obvious aesthetic benefits, Brin said as St. Thomas grows, the use of the waterfront facilities has become more intense. The current plans address the safety and security of the waterfront area as well, he said.
The authority was instructed by federal Homeland Security last year to immediately construct fences around the ferry areas, which was done with cyclone fencing. Brin said a newer and more attractive fence will be constructed around the Blyden terminal using wrought iron.
Sen. Louis Hill, who has followed the waterfront project since its inception, attended the Thursday briefing. "I am delighted they have identified a strategy that may speed up the process," he said. "I intend to be VIPA's strongest advocate."

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