Not-So-Secret Guide to Sustainability: 2020 ULI Spring Meeting
Location: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Sponsor: Virgin Islands Housing Authority, Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority
Subject Area: Housing, Economic Development & Resilience, Placemaking & Mobility
Panel Chair: Adam Weers, Trammell Crow Company, Washington, D.C.
Panel Background and Assignment
ULI was asked to consider and provide strategic recommendations on the following:
The panel’s work builds upon the work of an earlier ULI Advisory Services panel conducted in 2018 in St. Croix, which provided recommendations relating to building the island’s economic development, creating affordable housing, and improving transportation links and resiliency strategies. The islands’ environments and cultural makeup and needs are similar but separate due to geographic separation. The panel’s recommendations are a combination of specific plans and conceptual design suggestions for areas within its study area along with a suite of recommendations that broadly fall within the following five categories:
Approach: Harness Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding to jump-start community resilience. Use the opportunity to make key shifts in the structuring and delivery of power in St. Thomas.
Recognizing resilience as a key economic infrastructure, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to sustainability and climate resilience. Any effort to rebuild should be founded in building to higher standards and not just re-creating the previous framework for resources that proved insufficient when stressed by extreme weather events.
The high cost of fuel in the USVI has hampered its economic growth, quality of life, and overall resilience. Energy is one of the major factors affecting economic development, health, education, transportation, quality of life, and the environment. People understand the importance of having access to affordable, reliable energy, but the fuel source is also a critical priority.
Approach: Focus on economic development investments at all scales in an effort to achieve greater diversification within the economy. The panel recommends investment in the downtown district paired with enhancements to tourism and small business development.
Tourism is the USVI’s largest employer, making the territory especially vulnerable to tourism-specific fluctuations. It is imperative that St. Thomas develop an equitable economic development plan that recognizes the value of human capital and the creation and growth of local small business activity.
St. Thomas has a generational opportunity to catalyze and leverage the responsible growth and diversification of its economy through an intentional, transformative economic development planning process involved with the development of the USVI 2040 Economic Development Plan.
From analysis of the study area, the panel offers the following recommendations that it believes would be of value to the study area and to the USVI 2040 Economic Development Plan initiative in addressing key economic challenges throughout the territory.
Approach: Use CDBG-DR funding as a catalyst for revitalization of public housing and creation of greater cohesion with the surrounding community.
Because of decades of declining federal subsidies, the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA) has not had sufficient resources to modernize the bulk of its properties. Nor has it received the necessary funds to protect and repair its properties from natural hazards and climate change. The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters make one thing clear: the future will bring more storms and more damage to the island, so rebuilding with an eye toward the future is vital.
As might be expected, many residents feel the burden of the cumulative impact of successive natural disasters and recurring structural challenges that manifests in many ways that are analogous to symptoms of trauma. Rebuilding offers the chance to address not only problems caused by the storms, but also some of the challenges that began beforehand and were exacerbated by natural disasters.
Because housing is one of the most fundamental human needs, the failure of the federal government to provide modernization and recovery funds in a timely manner negatively affects residents’ physical and mental health. Throughout the study, the panel was impressed with the resilient spirit and dynamic character that came through as panel members met with local stakeholders, including residents of VIHA properties, homeowners, business owners, and government leaders.
With the panel’s focus on key VIHA assets, it found the territory in a key position to revitalize public housing with an eye toward modernization, integration with the surrounding community, and strengthening social networks to assist residents in the advancement of the territory.
Given the depth of the panel’s analysis, the recommended approach centered on key housing and community challenges as follows:
Approach: Improve quality of life through reunifying and connecting surrounding communities by placing residential at the core of the vision. Within the greater scope of the downtown Charlotte Amalie district, the panel’s conceptual drawings make an effort to use the built environment, placemaking, and mobility enhancements to bridge its various areas.
Approach: Evaluate structural and governance barriers, implementing reform and ensuring a high level of delivery and implementation in the context of the disaster recovery funding and new administration.
Some USVI impediments have to do with structural and organizational barriers to progress within the USVI government itself. Although many of these challenges are longstanding and are neither the creation nor the fault of current government officials and administrators, they are real and prevalent: the time for reforming, addressing, and restructuring them is now.
The current USVI government has an opportunity to accept this reality for what it is and acknowledge that whereas the links may be inaccurate, the rhetoric may be deplorable, and the motivations may be questionable, the current governance challenge, if responded to in a material way, can provide a road map to justify a demand for access to more recovery dollars in a more timely manner as a result of the USVI’s response. Simply put, there are times in dealing with governmental gatekeepers when it is prudent to be disagreeable but responsive.
This section provides suggestions to the leadership of the VIH and the USVI government on how to address the issues mentioned above.