Don’t throw out the baby!
The proposed construction of a high-rise Hyatt hotel in the heart of Bridgetown has provoked controversy.
Let me say at the outset that I have no more information on the project than what has been made public. So I’m dealing with principles more than facts.
While the present proposal lacks transparency, we should not reject it out of hand. In fact, we should welcome the presence of a hotel or two in Bridgetown proper, because it will be a huge impetus to the revitalization of our capital city, and a boost to our economy.
But here are my caveats.
First, a plea to this and all future governments: we understand the need for confidentiality at certain stages of the negotiations with private sector interests, but public consultation must be built in as part of the process in any project that has a major impact on our communities. This is especially true of Bridgetown, in view of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
Second, all the UNESCO guidelines must be rigorously complied with. And of course all the other requirements of town planning and coastal zone management.
Third, whether the height of the proposed hotel (I have seen both 12 and 15 storey claims) is in compliance with the UNESCO guidelines or not, a height over ten stories in that location seems to be an aesthetic blunder. What will be there to stop other high rises going up all around Carlisle Bay?
Now, I have always favoured high density buildings in Bridgetown and its environs as a way to induce people to return to reside in the city. It is after all a highly liveable place. But these should be a maximum of eight stories with retail shopping on the first (ground) floor, services on the second floor, and residential accommodation above.
Moreover, the architects should try to ensure that the design of any new building is sympathetic to the unique cultural and historical heritage of Bridgetown. A fine example of this is the RBC building on the other side of High Street from the Parliament buildings.
Third, and this can’t be stressed enough, Carlisle Bay should not be allowed to become like most of the west and south coasts where there are very few ‘windows to the sea’. Government should adopt a policy of allowing future hotel or condominium construction only on the land side of the road with respect to Carlisle Bay.
It is not just a question of beach access but of Barbadians being able to enjoy scenic views of the beach and the sea. A boardwalk from the Pierhead along Carlisle Bay is also a necessity.
Now the proposed location of the Hyatt is, strictly speaking, not on Browne’s Beach proper, but in an area where there was traditionally no beach at all, and where there is now no view of, or access to the beach. So much depends on the design of the hotel complex.
Fourth, Bridgetown needs desperately to be re-developed and revitalized within the UNESCO-mandated requirements. This includes both restoration of historic heritage buildings and the creation of new building developments that help our economy grow. The most urgent task is to bring the waterfront redevelopment to fruition.
The waterfront is the showpiece of Bridgetown and it needs more than a facelift. Important work has already been done: the Chamberlain lift bridge, the Wickham-Lewis boardwalk, the Old Spirit Bond, work on the Constitution River, and Independence Square.
But we need to think of the waterfront – and the structures surrounding it – holistically. It is best if the entire waterfront redevelopment is conceived of as much as possible as a whole with its parts in harmony. While the vision needs to be holistic, elements of it can and should be implemented in a piecemeal fashion.
We must ensure that the re-development of Bridgetown includes many public spaces. These are places not only of recreation but also of social interaction that is an essential ingredient in building social trust and a sense of community. Contrast this with the pedestrian-hostile, ugly, chaotic growth of Warrens.
To sum up, I think we should not reject the Hyatt proposal out of hand. If it meets the requirements, it will become a critical catalyst for much needed development in the area: the Pierhead, including a maritime museum with the Screw Dock, Nelson’s Statue and old cannon as highlights, Golden Square with a statue of Clement Payne and a small museum of the 1937 Rebellion, Parliament (Heroes’) Square with a statue of Samuel Jackman Prescod on a plinth with the names of all parliamentarians since 1639 inscribed, a renovated Empire Theatre, the removal of derelict buildings and the restoration of all heritage sites in the area.
We might also have a ceremonial ‘changing of the guard’ on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the House and Senate are in session; a ‘light and sound’ display on the history of Parliament once a week from Independence Square; and concerts and other performances in the evening in Independence Square.
Tourists staying in the heart of Bridgetown are far more likely to visit heritage sites in the area and spend money in cafes, restaurants and shops. This should give us an incentive to improve these sites and provide these facilities.
All this should redound not only to the proliferation and profitability of Bridgetown entrepreneurs, but also to the benefit of all Barbadians. There is no inherent conflict between profit-making ventures and the public interest.
Just look at what Aruba is doing: magnificent restoration of historical heritage buildings along with modern top brand hotels.
At the end of the day, Bajans have to decide whether we remain a quaint backwater or we become a first world country while preserving our unique heritage.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a former Barbados ambassador to the United States, retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service.)