Tue | Oct 19, 2021

PM takes flak as investors pull out of billion-dollar downtown project

Published:Monday | September 20, 2021 | 12:09 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Two women walk past a decaying building on Tower Street in downtown Kingston.
Two women walk past a decaying building on Tower Street in downtown Kingston.
Undeveloped land on Duke Street, Kingston, forms the backdrop for a sign of the imminent Duke Suites complex being undertaken by Global Designs and Builders Ltd.
Undeveloped land on Duke Street, Kingston, forms the backdrop for a sign of the imminent Duke Suites complex being undertaken by Global Designs and Builders Ltd.
New construction under way on East Queen Street, Kingston, in this July 28, 2021, photograph.
New construction under way on East Queen Street, Kingston, in this July 28, 2021, photograph.
Glen Christian: “We have always felt that if you want to develop downtown, you would have to trigger it from the market district.”
Glen Christian: “We have always felt that if you want to develop downtown, you would have to trigger it from the market district.”
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Fatigued by dithering across political administrations for almost a decade, a coalition of deep-pocketed investors has pulled out of a multibillion-dollar commercial project that was targeted as the axis of the redevelopment of downtown Kingston....

Fatigued by dithering across political administrations for almost a decade, a coalition of deep-pocketed investors has pulled out of a multibillion-dollar commercial project that was targeted as the axis of the redevelopment of downtown Kingston.

Glen Christian, chairman of an investment task force dubbed The Shoreline Group, has written to Prime Minister Andrew Holness urging him to take leadership of the implementation of the US$50-million (J$7.5-billion) Kingston Lifestyle Centre that was endorsed by Cabinet in 2013.

“We had to pull out. We weren’t getting anywhere after nine years,” Christian, mogul of the Cari-Med distributorship empire, told The Gleaner recently.

Christian charged that a lack of political will and an absence of synergy with government agencies have frustrated efforts to get the project off the ground.

“We wanted to put in a state-of-the-art market that would become a one-stop shop for everything. There would be security, parking, and sanitary convenience, and what would spring from that would be the lifestyle centre,” he said.

“We have always felt that if you want to develop downtown, you would have to trigger it from the market district, more so Coronation Market because of its great history.”

Kingston’s market district has long been stained by the urban blight that scars most of the city, its grimy corridors a jammed maze of roaming vendors and handcart men and a metaphor of public disorder. The shadow cast by badmen, gangs, and extortionists adds to the reputation for unpredictability and danger.

For too long, said Christian, downtown Kingston has been treated like a warehouse - open at daytime and closed at nights.

“You can only keep the city open if it’s going to be safe and attractive. Downtown has so much potential and it is rotting away,” he told The Gleaner.

Christian said that the development philosophy has lacked equity in its vision - placing too much focus on the “front yard”, that stretch of the waterfront on Ocean Boulevard, while the rest of the city crumbles in neglect.

Even though there have been dozens of new or renovation projects mushrooming in the city, vast swathes remain in decay, especially the critical mass of infrastructure where residents live.

“Money changes hands downtown every day – millions upon millions of dollars, and the business people know it. But nobody is going to really come on board until they know that the security is there, or that the sewage system is in place. It can happen, and it is not beyond us to do it,” Christian said.

Former executive director of the Kingston Restoration Company, Morin Seymour, agrees. He wants to see a coherent plan for the redevelopment of downtown Kingston.

“When I was there, we did Vision 2020 and we achieved 90 per cent of what we planned to do. We put in the stock exchange - that building was captured by badmen and we took them out. We did all that parcel of land from Gold Street down to where the Matalons are at ICD,” he said, adding that Public Buildings West was built out, among other developments.

He said enough is not being done to deal with urban blight.

“First of all, you have to have a strategy to deal with blight. Wherever you have blight in the urban centre, it is not just buildings and spaces. It has to be an overall strategy agreed by the municipality.”

He explained that the city was incorporated so that its growth and development could be managed in an orderly manner. But besides the patchy buildout and the apparent lack of strategy, violent crime is still the biggest stumbling block to fulfilling downtown’s potential.

“You can’t build residences if people walk around at 3 o’clock in the morning and shoot up the place,” said Seymour.

Murders continue to stalk the three police divisions in Kingston, with the uptick in killings more than 40 per cent above last year’s trajectory in the central belt.

Deputy chairman of the Town and Country Planning Authority, Christopher Whyms-Stone, is not as pessimistic about the framework for development, and disputes that it has been haphazard.

He said that the formal planning of Kingston more than 200 years ago offers structure. Streets and blocks are strategically organised and gridded for orderly investment and construction.

Whyms-Stone argues, however, that there are real constraints that hinder the rehabilitation of communities in downtown Kingston.

“Both in terms of financial - fiscal space, there’s only so much the Government can do in reality in terms of money, and then there’s also the citizenry, who have a role to play also. I believe they are not giving their 100 per cent,” Whyms-Stone, an architect, said.

“We all have a big expectation for downtown. Historically, especially us in the architecture and planning community, we have visions for what downtown could be, but there are also lots of challenges with downtown why it has not happened, even when there are incentives provided.”

General manager of Issa Construction, Peter Issa, has been doing some of the heavy lifting in the downtown rehabilitation drive, renovating a 25,000-square-foot commercial building at the corner of Pechon and Harbour streets.

The property, which is near completion, also boasts 100 parking spaces. Issa declined to share the value of the investment.

Issa envisions that downtown will become one of the best commercial and residential areas. He sees the business district as a viable space for the buoyant business process outsourcing sector.

“A big vision is for residential developments, but the commercial has to come first. Residents are not gonna live there if businesses are afraid to operate there,” Issa said.

The developer added that a major benefit of people living downtown is having a job in the same area.

“They would wake up in a 20-storey residential building and they would walk from, say, Harbour Street to Duke Street at their law firm,” he said.

Gentrification - the displacement of poor residents by wealthier migrants - continues to be a real threat for householders who have made downtown their home for generations.

That’s a concern for residents next door to the new development, Duke Suites, near the top of Duke Street.

One woman, who has resided there for more than four decades, revealed that she is actively seeking to relocate.

“Nobody has given us notice or anything, but I just don’t know if we will be affected. The persons that were living on the property were asked to move, some were evacuated, and the building was demolished,” the woman said.

She said the family home is shelter to nine sets of people.

Another woman, who has been a tenant for 20 years, said she has no knowledge of the type of development being put up or how it will affect her.

“I’m kinda concerned, but I’m just watching to see what will happen next. If it comes to the point where I have to find another place to live, I will just have to do that,” she said.

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com