FESTIVE Independence anniversary sounds kill a kangaroo in the zoo. Inside that feral homestead turned fatal, birds also fall dead from the trees. February 2020, still far away, boom-boom music boxes are yet to blast at the Carnival Friday fete from the nearby Brian Lara residence.
Not only for zoo animals does capital-city livability appear threatened. Witness the Prime Minister Keith Rowley decree, halting south Port of Spain development yearned after and planned for since his own millennial days as Housing Minister. “We are not going forward,” he announced, with execution of a contract signed last May to build at South Quay a 204-unit, high-end housing project.
For Port of Spain, the upscaling downtown project promised realisation of the population influx advertised in 2006 by Housing Development Corporation (HDC) chairman Noel Garcia. “We are in a conspiracy to bring more people to live in Port of Spain,” he said, answering criticisms of the “redevelopment” being promoted by Dr Rowley and piloted by the HDC.
After the 2007 general election, the Rowley ministerial career changed. Having lost the Housing portfolio, within months he would be out of the Patrick Manning Cabinet. Port of Spain “redevelopment” also lost favour as the mission of some enabling somebody.
The heady dream, of bringing more people into a setting and ambience of upgraded downtown structures and amenities, remained without an owner. The Manning vision of the city came to pass in a metropolitan waterfront of typically higher-rising hotel and office buildings. For Port of Spain central, east and south, with steadily diminishing residents and developers, hardly a thought was spared and hardly a voice was raised.
“We in the PNM are accused of being in the government for decades and of doing nothing for east Port of Spain and leaving them in their condition.” So confessed Dr Rowley in 2006, plainly admitting how his party has treated an area with its most faithful supporters. He wasn’t fated to do much to change the pattern of neglect.
Nine years ago, the late Marion O’Callaghan listed flooding, traffic, the loss of “pavement”; encroachment on the Savannah; disregard of historic sites; vandalism of Lapeyrouse cemetery and “D’Avenue”; and disappearance of “the civilised space that was once Woodbrook”. Resident Port of Spain doyen, she claimed to have “given up on downtown”. How come, she asked, did the city “once thought of as the Paris of the Caribbean, (become) sunk in squalor and sometimes filth?”
Her column was addressed to then mayor Louis Lee Sing. Former mayors, going back to AA Cipriani, had enjoyed “a certain autonomy”, in contrast to the subservience latterly endured by “PNM mayors”. Mr Lee Sing, determined to be no PNM “eunuch”, cracked down on illegal vending and parking, and pavement dwelling. He ended his term conceding, however, that the city “in parts is broken and sick”.
South Quay still merits such labelling. Hopes for near-time transformation into the clean modern scene and character suggested by the stalled project remain disappointed, while a contract may be wrestled over with presumably different developers. Gezhouba Group, from China, which just lost the South Quay contract thought to be signed and sealed, may not go away without a lengthy and costly legal fight.
Thus threatened is the position of T&T in the Chinese good books. So far from ever pulling out of this country, Chinese will likely see the Gezhouba Group fiasco as a lesson in the tendency toward waywardness of top officials here. The all-smiles photo of the ill-fated May signing shows five Rowley ministers, including AG Faris Al-Rawi, and then-minister Marlene McDonald.
No longer beholden to insider discipline, Ms McDonald promptly expressed concern about the false start on South Quay. “I’m taking a personal interest in this,” she said. “We’re in dire need of increasing and improving housing stock in east Port of Spain.”
The downmarket area affected by the broken promise of “redevelopment” identifies with her Port of Spain South constituency. In the reckoning of power and influence, the MP title is about all retained by the former leading lady, now before the criminal court.
She too had trusted the process that led to the signing. She too had not read and digested the document before showing up to endorse, without question, whatever the clauses provided. To uninitiated observers, the HDC appeared to be giving in a lot. The Chinese negotiators had exacted the right to import 600 construction workers, and secured assurances for their housing, and their 24-hour armed protection against notorious T&T crime.
HDC honchos signed Yes, Yes. The Chinese, once signed on, were trusted to deliver 110 per cent of effort, and apply proven ingenuity toward on-time delivery. The HDC last week affirmed: “This contract was executed legally, and formalised with the authority of the board who added within their remit.”
Ms McDonald had a singularly personal excuse: “I was very excited, with a lot of hope in my heart for the area.”
Under Mayor Joel Martinez, China retains fond Port of Spain relations. Several blocks on Charlotte Street are due to be named “Chinatown”.