The trinidad Guardian / Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when they are created by everybody.”
In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs critiqued the 1950s urban planning policy which it holds responsible for the decline of many city neighbourhoods in the US.
It is a view shared by local business owners who believe the current policy framework is slowly destroying the life of the country’s two major cities.
While businesses in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando claimed to have registered a decline within the last few years, the respective mayors argue it is the opposite.
Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez said while he believes the capital is not dying, “PoS does have its challenges economically, developmentally and socially.”
San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello, however, claimed, “San Fernando has tremendous potential and is on a resurgence right now.”
But these views are not shared by business owners in both cities.
The Port-of-Spain perspective
President of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA), Gregory Aboud, said, “The truth is there is a noticeable decline in the city centres, in all of them.”
He went on, “It is not just in PoS and San Fernando, it is in Princes Town and Rio Claro, it is in all of the towns.”
Aboud was very critical of the current administrative system which, he said, was introduced post-independence.
“The core problem is that when we became independent, we disconnected the managers from the outcome.”
Aboud explained, “Any mayor can tell you he is doing a good job because his performance is not measured by the success of his city or town.
“If the city fails, they still collect a salary. They still make a requisition to the Central Government for money and everything continues in their life in the way that it was before.
“Whereas, in the life of the city itself, the city could be dying but the managers of the city are still living, that is wrong.”
An incensed Aboud said the mayors always have a different story to tell as they point to traffic congestion as a sign that the city is busy.
He said, in truth and in fact, “The only reason we have traffic congestion is because the intersections are so badly managed. It has nothing to do with traffic, it only has to do with congestion.”
Regarding the growing reality of urban sprawl, Aboud said, “There would not be proliferation of retail space outside the city centre if the Mayor’s and Councils and all the rest of the authorities were doing their job.”
He said when they were elected, they became disconnected and managed to insulate themselves from performance measurement.
Demanding a return to the policy of yesteryear, Aboud said, “Prior to independence, the managers of the city were connected to the outcome. The council, the mayor and the rest of them must suffer if the city suffers and if the city prospers, they must prosper, therefore they become connected to the outcome in a manner in which they are not now.”
Martinez, who was appointed in December 2016 as Port-of-Spain’s 46th mayor, admitted that not enough had been done over the years to properly develop the city in a way that would encourage sustainable growth and stimulate consistent activity.
He said the city shuts down as dusk unfolds which was an indication that, “We have lost the ability to attract activity after dark and on weekends.”
Martinez attributed this to people having moved away from city living over the years as other areas developed.
He added that commercial property development had also contributed to the loss of residential living within city limits, “As the thinking was on expansion of the commercial district when Trinidad was experiencing an economic boom, so the people who fared better looked toward the suburbs.”
Pressed to say what was PoS’s biggest loss as a result of the transformation, Martinez said, “I believe we allowed our city planners to fall down on the job and not foresee the social impact of those changes today.
“We allowed contraction of our city population with that growth within the city walls,” he added.
However, he is optimistic that as the development of PoS continues to evolve, “If we can use this economic period to make the necessary changes that can continue to shape policy, this will help us recover and stimulate the activity that cities need to become and remain sustainable.”
Views from down South
Holding the viewpoint that economic activity was booming on the outskirts of San Fernando, Regrello said the development of the South Park Estate had brought a new energy and spirit of rejuvenation to his city.
Regrello described San Fernando as an ideal location for investment as, he said, trends indicated, “People are leaving the lower areas where they would have established businesses and moving into the heart of San Fernando.”
But president of the San Fernando Business Association (SFBA), Daphne Bartlett, said San Fernando had not undergone any major development except for the San Fernando Teaching Hospital which opened in 2014.
She admitted that while “a lot of development” was taking place on the periphery of the city, it was not reflective of growth within the central business district (CBD).
She said issues that need to be addressed urgently include: parking, security and the enforcement of law and order.
Challenging the authorities to step up, both Bartlett and Aboud agreed that those operating in the CBDs in each city had to demand more.
Aboud asked, “In what city in the world does a mayor impose a wrecking scheme on potential customers without providing them with available parking options? And imposes a scheme that also infringes on the rights of the public by not putting up signs to warn them about towing?”
PoS to save $150 on a pair of shoes at Francis Fashions on Henry Street, if you are going to get your car wrecked for $500, when you can easily choose to go to West Mall and buy the same pair of shoes for $150 more and not risk having to spend $500 to get your car back?”
The DOMA head described as a “new phenomenon” the pattern whereby major business were setting up branches outside of the CBD, as “the shopping centres are not as friendly anymore to the customers.”
Aboud, like Bartlett, complained that parking remained the biggest headache for shoppers within the major cities.
He said, “The reality is governments that have come and gone have not seen any value in these CBDs because they assume these business centres will survive no matter what.”
Aboud stressed, “This is the reality and the city council is not connected to that failure. They don’t feel the difficulty or are concerned about that aspect of our lives, the unfriendly nature of the city centres and that is resulting in the trouble we are facing.”
Martinez acknowledged that while public security was of paramount importance, there were some parts of PoS which can be considered dangerous, leading to people avoiding the capital in favour of shopping malls outside the CBD. He assured steps were being taken to restore a sense of safety and create cleanliness with the regularisation of the vending population.
Aboud estimated that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the business community in PoS did not belong to any chamber or association yet enjoyed all the benefits being realised through the work of established organisations without having to spend any money.
He recommended DOMA’s business improvement district concept (BID) in which each business would contribute a fixed sum which would be used to manage the city’s affairs.
Aboud argued that because of policies enacted by various governments, it had created, “A crisis that cities cannot recover from.”
He said, “People in the middle and upper classes are discouraged from coming to the city. They don’t need to anymore and when they stop coming, businesses that operate in the city, open branches outside.
This failing in governance by these managers have hurt society socially, as it has driven classes of people who have transport and access, to go elsewhere. Rich and poor don’t meet each other on the streets of the city which is an important deficiency.
“The poor are supposed to see the rich and aspire to them, to understand who they are and what they do in case they can take a habit from them. The rich are supposed to see the poor which will teach them to appreciate their fellow citizens, instill compassion in them and they will know the reality of their lives. The city acts as a social exchange where all classes of citizens can meet each other.” The Central solution
Even as the mayors of T&T’s two largest cities deny their cities are dying and the respective business communities continue to contradict them, Chaguanas Mayor Gopaul Boodhan is predicting tremendous growth and expansion for the borough.
He summed it up as he said, “Chaguanas is bursting at the seams regarding its growth and development.”
Boodhan said it was being driven by stakeholders to develop the wealth of the area and take advantage of the abundance of land.
Asked to divulge the secret behind the borough’s unprecedented growth in the past few years, Boodhan said, “When I came into office in 2013, I established four pillars on which individuals should operate developmentally.”
He said beautification of the environment, technology, safety/security, economic development and wealth creation were now the guiding principles behind the growth and expansion within recent times.
Boodhan proudly declared, “We have steadfastly stuck to those pillars and have developed Chaguanas by leaps and bounds.”
He said in the past two years, Chaguanas had witnessed the influx of foreign franchises.
Boodhan said major national and regional companies had already established a presence in Chaguanas, with others clamouring for an opportunity.
He revealed that in 2015, they set up an inter-agency team to address crime in the district and arrest gang activity which had proven to be a challenge.
“While Chaguanas has experienced fairly satisfactory growth for now,” he is confident greater things were ahead for the Borough which he said represented a place of great hope.
He forecasted, “I see continuing expansion at the greatest level and over the next five years, I am predicting tremendous growth for the area.”