Spurred by a $400,000 planning grant to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI), more than a hundred St. Thomians met Friday at Christ Church Methodist to brainstorm about the Charlotte Amalie of the future.
The grant from financier Richard Driehaus, a supporter of historical preservation and longtime donor to CFVI , is aimed at creating a form-based building code (FBC), a way of making sure that new and renovated buildings look similar to others in the area. It takes into account things like lighting, signage, proportions of open space, street design, and many more items that go into creating a similar look for an area.
If the Legislature gives its approval, form-based building will be included in the revamped building code now in the works by the Planning and Natural Resources Department.Charlotte Amalie is the testing ground for a process that would eventually spread across the territory.
“The goal is to study the DNA of a town and build that into the rules,” said Victor Dover, principal-in-charge of Dover Kohl and Partners, the urban planning firm hired by CFVI to help develop a vision and plan called The Town Blueprint for Charlotte Amalie.
“I think your city of the future looks a lot like your city of the past,” he said. Dover presented artist’s renditions with pedestrian-friendly shaded walkways. These images were very much like the scenes depicted in 19th century photos of the V.I. in a thorough presentation by Myron Jackson, head of the Cultural Heritage Institute under DPNR.
Rick Hall, president of Hall Planning and Engineering, touted the value of walkability — largely ignored by the conventional zoning codes of recent decades.
“If you get the walking part right, everything else falls into place,” he said.
Donna DeJongh, president of the USVI branch of the American Insititute of Architects (AIA), and Robert DeJongh, both of the DeJongh Group architecture firm, said a recent AIA committee had enthusiastic discussions about the FBC process. Among the committee’s goals were affordable housing in the town area – an update of the mixed usage which once supported Charlotte Amalie’s viability.
The AIA discussions also mentioned bike-ability, a dedicated entertainment zone which could be coupled with Carnival, encouraging owners of historical zone homes to run inns and bed and breakfasts, and multimodal transport along the shore to alleviate traffic problems — a proposal that has been brought up repeatedly but opposed by taxi drivers.
St. Thomas native Samuel Rhymer wished his grandchildren could experience the vibrant and safe family evenings that he remembered from his youth and recommended bringing Charlotte Amalie to life with street food vendors and entertainment.
Gwen Marie Moolenaar pointed out the need for crime control, and Susan Lugo noted the problem of homeless people sleeping out at night. Both emphasized the need take a realistic look at what prevents people from visiting Charlotte Amalie at night.
Other attendees put forth proposals to restore some of the old buildings and step streets, to make the waterfront accessible and alive with trees, cafes, vendors, to include the African ancestry of residents and to fit zoning plans in with the territory’s tourism goals.
“I want to see people on the waterfront strolling, sitting, laughing, buying coffee, like in other places I visit. Why do we have a highway running through the town and isolating us from one of the most beautiful harbors in the world?” said Trevor Milner of the St. Thomas Historical Trust.
CFVI has been working for over a year on the initiative with (DPNR) and Dover, Kohl & Partners. The Department of Public Works, WAPA, Savan Enterprise Zone, Downtown Revitalization Inc., We From Upstreet Inc. and other neighborhood groups have also been very involved in the consultations.
The schedule for the rest of the week is as follows:
- Open Design Studio, Sunday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; 2nd Floor of the Grand Hotel (across from Emancipation Gardens). The planning team will work at the Grand Hotel creating the plan for the study area. The entire community is invited to visit the studio to provide input and monitor the work-in-progress.
- Open House on Tuesday 6-8 p.m.; 2nd Floor of the Grand Hotel
- Work-in-Progress Presentation, Thursday, 6:30 p.m.; Lockhart Elementary School Auditorium. The planning team will present the work generated to date, and obtain input for further refinement from the community.