More than 100 St. Thomas residents braved the sweltering heat inside the Grand Hotel Galleria on Tuesday to pepper officials with questions about progress on several projects in the historic district.
“We’re excited about this process,” said Sebastiano Paiewonsky Cassinelli, president of St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.
The meeting, held by the chamber and Downtown Revitalization Inc., is the latest public forum engaging the community in an attempt to improve the economy and restore island pride in the area.
The Department of Public Works presented its latest designs with respect to Veteran’s Drive Enhancement Project. Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said Phase I of the Veteran’s Drive Waterfront Safety and Beautification Project will be completed by December and Phase II should be completed by the 2014-2015 fiscal year. The improvements include street trees and on-street parking to replace waterfront parking lots, which should provide space for wider sidewalks, cobblestone pavers, historic lanterns, benches, waterfront greens and outdoor dining.
“I’ve never been part of anything like this,” Smalls said. “This is incredible.”
Residents voiced complaints about the aesthetic value of placing palm and shade trees on the waterfront, the types of palm trees that should be selected and whether these changes will turn the island’s waterfront into a generic carbon copy of other tourist destinations.
Smalls tried to assuage those concerns by arguing the changes would provide shade while maintaining a connection with the island’s history. The St. Thomas/St. John Historic Commission voiced similar concerns during earlier negotiations, Smalls said, so officials promised not to plant palm trees that were too wide or would block signage or obstruct views.
“We don’t want to be Walt Disney,” Smalls said. “We don’t want to be Miami or California or Africa. We want our waterfront to look like St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.”
Smalls brought agricultural and horticultural experts to explain they were only considering palm trees found on the island and officials have a shortlist of which palm trees are the easiest to maintain by maintenance workers.
John Woods, an architect from Jaredian Design Group, showed pictures of the waterfront that were more than 100 years old. He explained how the proposed challenges would align with the waterfront historic nature.
The Chamber and DRI contracted with Dover Kohl & Partners to design Veteran’s Drive enhancement project. Dover Kohl, along with Jaredian Design Group and Parson Brinkerhoff, are lead designers for the project and presented the latest design development work to the audience.
“This is an opportunity to create iconic space and return the waterfront to its prominence,” Woods said.
Woods and other experts from Jaredian also answered questions about the proposed cobblestone pavers and wider streets, explaining it would slow down vehicle traffic while allowing for safer traffic for bicyclists.
Cassinelli said the Market Square project is near completion. The project is part of a long-term vision for revitalizing downtown Charlotte Amalie, from Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral all the way to Fort Christian. The various beautification and utility improvement efforts are being coordinated between the V.I. Water and Power Authority, the Department of Public Works and downtown merchants.