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HomeNewsLocal newsDisaster Funds Could Enable Island Makeover; So, How Should It Look?

Disaster Funds Could Enable Island Makeover; So, How Should It Look?

A stateside consultant group has issued suggestions for remaking St. Thomas and the greater Virgin Islands from top to bottom.

Recommendations run the gamut, from establishing bike lanes and promoting scooter traffic to creating new government agencies and revising the civil service system that covers most government employees.

The report reads like the wish-list of someone who was asked “If money were no object, what would you like to do?”

It was released last week. It relies somewhat on the consultant agency’s experience of what has worked in other jurisdictions and somewhat on information gleaned from a one-week site visit in August 2019, when a seven-member panel met with a wide swath of community leaders and local government officials.

The same organization, Urban Land Institute, a consulting group of real estate experts and land planners based in Washington D.C., visited St. Croix in June 2018 and made a similar report of recommendations for the island. It also has made restructuring recommendations for Puerto Rico.

Both V.I. reports focused on the main cities of each island – Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie – and surrounding areas, but also suggested changes that would affect the entire territory.

Many of the suggestions for St. Thomas have been raised in various forms and forums over the past 40 years or so. Some have even made it as far as being formalized into legislative proposals but were not implemented.

For instance, the report suggests the Virgin Islands “explore the sale of the energy generation or distribution infrastructure [of the quasi-governmental V.I. Water and Power Authority] to a utility company with the technical and financial means to transform the electricity system throughout the territory.” That idea dominated public attention for much of the late 1990s and into the 2000s, as the Legislature debated accepting an actual purchase proposal from Southern Energy, which met opposition, including from WAPA employees. Ultimately it was rejected.

In the 2010s, local real estate agents led an effort to pass carrot-and-stick legislation that would give tax breaks to owners of derelict buildings to rehab their properties or else risk losing them. A public awareness campaign failed to move legislators, who cited suspicions about land grabs and allowed the bill to die a slow death, strangling in the legislative committee structure. Now, the ULI consultants have outlined a similar approach to rehab unsightly properties in an effort to improve downtown Charlotte Amalie.

A few of the other well-worn ideas getting a fresh airing in the report are:

 Consolidate government offices in a single area downtown in order to encourage collaboration among agencies and simplify access for the public.
– Establish more green spaces.
– Ensure there are sidewalks for pedestrians in high-trafficked areas in and near downtown.
– Create more recreational and cultural activities and facilities.

The difference with this second look at old ideas – and the addition of some new ones – is that now there is money to implement them, or at least some of them.

The consultant report stems from a desire to figure out how best to rebuild the territory after much of it was destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.

The dollar cost of the damage in the territory totaled $11.25 billion, according to figures coming through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The territory has already received millions of dollars in disaster relief assistance and is poised to receive millions more in the form of HUD Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Relief money, which will be used to rebuild and replace community assets.

“Any effort to rebuild should be founded in building to higher standards and not just recreating the previous framework for resources that proved insufficient when stressed by extreme weather events,” the report states.

The Virgin Islands Housing Authority was the primary local contact for the Urban Land Institute study and, with the help of a $10,000 grant from the ULI Foundation, VIHA covered the $135,000 cost of the study panel. The consultants worked with other agencies as well, particularly Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s office, the Economic Development Authority and the Housing Finance Authority, a ULI spokesperson said.

The official “study area” for St. Thomas was downtown Charlotte Amalie and the corridor between it and Havensight to the east and including two low-income residential communities – Paul M. Pearson Gardens and Oswald Harris Court – as well as the Lucinda A. Millin Senior Housing, all administered by VIHA. It also includes the nearby Charlotte Amalie High School, Schneider Regional Medical Center and the surrounding area that houses a myriad of private medical services offices.

Although many of the report’s recommendations apply to the study area, the ULI spokesperson said it does not suggest that the CDBG-DR funds all be used there.

In fact, there is almost no mention of specific costs in the report.

Besides what’s already been mentioned, here’s a glance at some of the report’s other suggestions:

Downtown and Tourism
Create theme-based signage at Havensight by the cruise ship dock to downtown, directing the way to attractions.

Expand the presence of vendors by running a “kiosk trail” from Havensight to Emancipation Garden and Vendors Plaza.

Establish a downtown Business Improvement District, a nonprofit organization funded by stakeholders who agree to pay additional taxes to increase the viability of an area.

Make room for more residential units downtown.

Put a hold on VIHA rebuilding until decisions are made on how best to renovate existing properties and functions.

Replace Oswald Harris Court with a mixed-use community including workforce housing, civic spaces promoting health, wellness and active lifestyles, recreational facilities like sports fields and courts and a swimming pool open to the general public.

Build on HUD construction requirements to bolster training and job creation for low income residents.

Transportation and Traffic
Discourage private vehicles downtown with metered parking.

Encourage non-motorized travel by creating bike lanes.

Install roundabouts at various intersections.

Eliminate competition between VITRAN government managed buses and private safaris, assigning the tourist routes to safaris and leaving the buses to serve local neighborhoods.

Create another Cabinet level position to head an Economic Development and Disaster Recovery cluster of several existing departments.

Establish a Governor’s Office of Community Engagement to serve as a constituent service center.

Reform the classified employee system concerning civil service protections since currently “incentives and disciplinary measures are not aligned to create performance management systems that reward good performance or make it easy to relieve chronically underperforming employees of their positions.”

Solarize St. Thomas, including possibly putting panels on public housing units.

Continue to explore other types of alternate energy sources, such as biofuel sourced at the landfill.

Increase WAPA’s ability to fund improvements by turning it into a privately-run entity with more ready access to lending markets.

Restructure the Public Services Commission so the PSC better regulates utilities.

There is little mention in the report about how to prioritize its multitude of recommendations and it is unclear how much support exists for any or all of them.

What the report does is point out is that the territory has a well-funded opportunity for change, and it opens the subject up for public discussion.

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