Location: Christiansted, St. Croix, USVI
Sponsor: Virgin Islands Housing Authority and Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority
Subject Area: Economic Development and Affordable Housing
Panel Chair: Carlton Brown, Principal, Direct Invest Development, LLC, New York, NY
Background and Panel Assignment
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is an unincorporated territory of the United States located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 1,100 miles from North America and just 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, its total population is 104,913. Comprising three main islands—St. Croix (population 49,109), St. Thomas (population 51,634), and St. John (population 4,170)—the territory has about one-fifth the population and double the land area of Washington, D.C, and includes 68 separate islands and cays. The panel’s primary study area is the town of Christiansted; however, the panel also examined St. Croix and the rest of the USVI for additional context. St. Croix, the largest of the three islands, is about 84.17 square miles (28 miles long and seven miles wide) and home to two major towns, Christiansted, often recognized as the economic center of St. Croix, and Frederiksted. During the island’s “Golden Age” from 1755 to 1871, Christiansted was the thriving capital of the Danish West Indies; the town’s harbor served as the business and trading center, and it was the largest exporter of sugarcane in the world.
St. Croix’s Eastern Caribbean location makes its communities especially vulnerable to extreme environmental events, particularly to the short- and long-term physical and economic damage from storms. In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the USVI as two back-to-back Category 5 storms, causing tremendous housing and infrastructure destruction along with economic disruption estimated at over $10.76 billion.
During the panel week, the panel devoted significant time refocusing the original scope to more sharply focus on equitable economic development, innovative afford-able housing development, transportation and mobility, creative community engagement, and resilience—or, in other words, those challenges and opportunities the panel believes are most critical to ensuring a resilient future for St. Croix. Nonetheless, understanding the larger set of questions the panel started from, those originally posed by the sponsor that helped the panel narrow in on its ultimate recommendations, is also important. The VIHA and the VIHFA asked the panel to address the following questions related to economic development, affordable housing, mobility, and placemaking.
- What are optimal strategies to help diversify the economy of St. Croix with a specific focus on Christiansted?
- What industries or economic sectors for the primary focus area are a good fit for the local economy, will be resilient, and create employment opportunities?
- How should St. Croix begin to develop an equitable economic development vision for the next five, 10, and 15-plus years? What financial tools and incentives should be used to bolster St. Croix’s economic development vision?
- What economic investments are needed to align training programs for high school and post–high school programs to prepare a diverse, resilient, and sustainable workforce that allows Cruzan households to earn a living wage?
- How can St. Croix leverage its natural assets to create a tourism driver that attracts visitors locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally?
Affordable housing development:
- How can St. Croix ensure that moving forward a strategic economic development vision also drives housing affordability goals and innovation?
- Superblocks of distressed public and assisted housing exist (both VIHA and VIFHA have large assisted housing projects in the area); how should St. Croix determine the housing mix, location, design, and scale of family and senior supportive housing?
- How can the design and development of workforce (family) housing be a catalyst for revitalization of the primary focus area?
- How can pedestrian and transportation links be improved for residents and visitors to access neighborhood assets, Christiansted’s central business district, the beach/harbor, and the boardwalk?
- What are resilient strategies to diversify the economy of St. Croix to help strengthen Christiansted and surrounding neighborhoods? Which strategies can be scaled to implement and stimulate investment islandwide?
- What design principles would brand the area of Christiansted as a unique location with a strong sense of place that would draw both Virgin Islanders and travelers to the area?
Following a week of briefings, review of past plans and studies, site tours, and community stakeholder interviews, the panel developed a number of strategic recommendations for St. Croix and, specifically, Christiansted. In addition to the major questions posed by the sponsor team, the panel spent considerable time reframing the scope of the assignment to focus on equitable economic development, affordable housing innovation, mobility, placemaking and placeholding, and resilience.
The panel identified many small-to-large recommendations and lays out replicable strategies that can be implemented in the study area, across St. Croix, and throughout the USVI. These recommendations together are a plan for how to strengthen Christiansted by incorporating a modern-day and innovative approach to public housing, enhance community vibrancy, and create stronger connectivity to, from, and within the downtown. All the panel’s recommendations keep in mind the following guiding principle—focus on causing no harm by unintended consequences. A summary follows of the panel’s major recommendations:
Equitable economic development:
- Instead of focusing on “big idea” large-scale investment, consider smaller, sustainable, equitable and incremental investments.
- Meet people where they are with opportunities scaled to grow human capacity. Consider small, worker-owned co-ops and artisanal businesses as both economic development investments and investments in the people of St. Croix.
- Foster an agribusiness sector.
- Invest in resilient, efficient, and renewable electrical generation and distribution systems to reduce energy-related barriers to economic development.
- Consider privatization of utilities to transfer the high capital cost of upgrades to the private sector. If privatized, use the power of the government regulatory system to ensure delivery of low-cost, high-value utility services.
- Consider opportunities to rethink waste as a closed-loop system to generate energy and revenues.
- Improve water management systems by deploying permaculture methodologies, greenway water management, softscape parks and recreation spaces, and water recovery systems.
- Make the mobility systems work with incremental investment of recovery funds.
- Make transportation investments in different modes of transport, including a bike-share system, motorized scooters, and jitney services.
Planning, design, and development:
- Develop St. Croix’s story and market it vigorously.
- Enhance and grow tourism around the island’s undervalued assets: land, sea, and other natural environments; historic architectural fabric; unique cultural character, history, and emerging cottage industries.
- Engage residents in the design of the public realm and public housing.
- Develop parks, waterfront and greenways, public plazas, public outdoor markets, and other public spaces (and the connection between these assets) to serve all communities and enhance the human experience for residents and visitors.
- Phase new construction around the development of the panel’s proposed waterfront park, and use this project to pilot and implement new designs, construction methods, material modalities, and development models that jointly export less capital off the island.