George Town Revitalisation
There is a clear need – and a widely shared desire – to breathe life back into George Town: to make it not just a business centre, but also a place where people live and play, a place that is buzzing at night as well as by day. For this to happen there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, which will require both public and private sector investment and cooperation.
Words by Natasha Were.
George Town Manager and Revitalisation Initiative Coordinator, Colin Lumsden, outlines the issues that have been identified, and the Cayman Islands Government’s vision for revitalisation. The Cayman Islands Government is taking a holistic approach towards revitalising the capital in the spirit of New Urbanism, Lumsden says, which will involve many meetings and presentations to gain input and ideas from the public.
“The downtown area is suffering from a myriad of issues such as single use zoning, lack of housing options and business diversity, along with traffic/parking issues and the availability of up-to-date public transportation systems,” Lumsden observes.
Streets need to be redesigned to improve access for motorists, and a variety of changes made so that George Town can be a city that people want to walk around.
Due to single use zoning restrictions imposed in the 1990s, there is limited residential real estate in downtown GeorgeTown. It is not a city that people live in: when businesses close, downtown becomes deserted. Harbour Drive has been identified as the key downtown attraction for visitors and this needs to be enhanced in order to encourage both visitors and residents to spend more time there, whilst also preserving some of the iconic architecture that gives the waterfront its character.
“We currently have large city blocks that are not easily traversable,” Lumsden says. “A lot of the existing ‘short cuts’ and rights of way used in the past are no longer available. We are looking at re-opening some of these to encourage less car trips and allow people to walk through town comfortably.” The ‘green streets’ design concept, which allows motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to all use streets safely is being looked at.
Short to medium term (3 to 5 year) plans include:
• Redesigning streets, creating proper sidewalks, seating, trees for shade, more greenery in the form of pocket parks, improving street lighting in the central business district, more functional pedestrian crossings, public WiFi and better signage.
• Housing, in a variety of sizes and options, needs to be created to ensure there is life beyond business hours. However, because most of the real estate in George Town is privately owned, this will require private sector involvement. It will also require changes to existing legislation.
“These changes require us to take an extensive look at the current planning laws and regulations. It will take some time to make sure all stakeholders have the opportunity to be part of the discussion and changes proposed,” Lumsden notes.
In order to make Harbour Drive a more attractive place to spend time, Government is looking at reducing traffic, possibly by making it one directional, and adding street parking, trees and lighting to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
Consideration also has to be given to preserving the look and feel of the waterfront and some of its iconic architecture, possibly by creating a height-restricted zone.
The revitalisation of George Town will, Lumsden believes, engender, “that feeling of pride and confidence we should feel as Caymanians and that intrinsic sense of belonging to a place that is bursting with joy, culture and life.”
A number of stakeholders in the real estate sector offered their thoughts on how George Town can be improved, the issues surrounding creating more housing, and the potential challenges ahead.
In my view the key driver to the regeneration of George Town is the introduction of a legislative framework that encourages and facilitates the re-development of older downtown commercial buildings into loft and studio style accommodations.
The recent escalation in real estate prices has been greatest in the Seven Mile corridor and South Sound. George Town, positioned strategically between these two spots, is well placed for the successful development of residential real estate. It is the economic viability of investing in redevelopment that will be the biggest challenge to private sector involvement.
However, in depressed downtown areas in other countries both local and central governments have supported the regeneration with monetary grants: such grants could also result in lower-priced studio-style residences that would enable first time buyers to get on the property ladder.
The other improvement that should be made is more public parking. I appreciate the topic of charging for parking is a debate but maybe the compromise would be subsidised parking at a reduced rate to partially cover capital and operational costs, without becoming prohibitively expensive.
The redevelopment effort will need to reach critical mass to be successful. The first private investor to move forward will have to be bullish and not averse to risk, as they will be trailblazing.
However, assuming the revitalisation is successful in the long term, those early investors will undoubtedly make the greatest returns on their investments.
The key is to promote and develop George Town as a place worth living in. This means bringing in new amenities to create a living, breathing urban experience. We need to start by asking what people are looking for and how we can repurpose and regenerate George Town to provide that.
There is absolutely demand for homes in George Town, from a number of markets: young professionals wanting the urban lifestyle, investors buying apartments to let, or retirees who like the idea of downsizing. And with residential development comes the need for ancillary services: convenience stores, cafés, restaurants and leisure activities.
However, for the private sector, the cost of repurposing old office buildings to upper floors with apartments may be prohibitive. The truth is it’s easier to start by developing the few remaining undeveloped sites on the edges of town. In other cases, demolition and redevelopment may be the only viable option.
Revitalisation will only work with close public-private sector cooperation. We need coordinated planning and we need to be flexible: sometimes we look for perfection over progress and in doing so paralyse ourselves. That doesn’t mean we need to compromise on quality or design, but we do have to adopt a creative and collaborative approach.
The traffic flow in general needs to be addressed in the core of George Town. Increasing walkable areas with pavers and landscaping would enhance the overall aesthetic: it would be great to see spill-over from the restaurants into the streets in certain areas through the use of patios and terraces, especially on the waterfront. Making the waterfront single lane or pedestrian-only would be fantastic.
All these improvements would inevitably make George Town a more appealing place to live and demand for residential property would grow.
There is nothing preventing private sector investment in commercial real estate in George Town, but there needs to be a systematic change from the Class A buildings to more of a business community that integrates amenities, green spaces, restaurants, retail and residential.
It’s going to be a real challenge to transform existing commercial buildings, which don’t have patios or any common/green space areas, into residences. At the moment it’s cost-prohibitive so there needs to be some real incentive for investors (reduced planning and infrastructure fees, waivers on import and stamp duty, for example).
These private and individual investors are likely to all have their own vision of how the revitalisation should go.
A comprehensive, holistic and cohesive plan needs to be developed to address all aspects if this project is going to be successful. Having an aligned approach across both the private and public sectors will be critical.
Closing off streets to create pedestrian, tree-lined boulevards with cafés, restaurants and nightlife spots would be ideal. Adding greenery would enhance the aesthetic appeal and also modify the microclimate.
Surface parking should be consolidated into parking structures to better utilise space. Locating these at the edge of the central business district with easy access to arterial roads would make them convenient for workers and shoppers and keeping them open evenings and weekends would encourage more people to spend leisure time in town.
Cayman is experiencing an affordable housing shortage at the moment. Now is the time to create housing in the downtown area, especially for young people, who may want to live in an urban centre and be able to walk to work or out to a restaurant. Work/live studios could be one approach to the problem.
However, small, expensive lots make it challenging to design and develop housing. It will be necessary to build upward by adding floors to existing buildings to make this viable. This would require changes to the existing planning laws and changing the zoning regulations from commercial to mixed use.
One potential pitfall is the shipping port, which is currently located in George Town Harbour, creating unsightly views and noise levels on the waterfront. This should be relocated to a less congested and less visible location away from the downtown area.
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