On Thursday, June 24, The Gleaner hosted an Editor’s Forum on “The Building Issues” which illustrated the vexing problem of erratic development all across Jamaica. There was a vivid contrast between the passionate views of concerned citizens and the complacent opinions of the representatives of government agencies. The moderator, Damion Mitchell, introduced the topic in this way: “It’s the issue that keeps building: construction in the Corporate Area and city planning. Are the authorities making any progress? And have the concerns of residents waned? Then comes the problem of the rapid build-out of high-rise buildings in older, low-density communities.”
The first speaker was Dr Patricia Green, a senior lecturer in architecture and historic preservation at the University of Technology. She highlighted the secretive way in which development is taking place. Even though the law requires consultation with citizens who will be affected by new construction, building plans are not readily available for review. Next was Anthony Davis, retired director of sport at the University of Technology and president of the Charlemont Drive Citizens’ Association. He raised the contentious issue of haphazard speculative development that pays no attention to environmental protection and proper planning. He argued that regulatory agencies are missing in action.
The new developments on Charlemont Avenue and Charlemont Drive can be viewed here. It’s one long road that changes name at a small bridge. Charlemont Avenue, which starts at Barbican Road, does not have a citizens’ association. That’s obvious. Most of the new development is concentrated there. By contrast, Charlemont Drive has a very active citizen’s association that is carefully monitoring all new development.
Consultant Enith Williams followed. She’s a former international financial adviser/private banker at Merrill Lynch in New York and a past president of the Golden Triangle Neighbourhood Association (GTNA). She made it absolutely clear that her association is not against increased density in the city. The issue is how it’s done. She noted that in functioning cities the higher the buildings the more attention is paid to pedestrian traffic.
SHUT DOWN BY GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
The representatives of the Kingston & St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC) were quite upbeat in response to criticism of the corporation. Sean Martin, deputy head of planning at KSAMC, said he was “aware of the cries of our citizens” and wanted to “see how best to manage the process of change that is presently taking place within the city, while ensuring equity for all”. Unfortunately, actually listening to the citizens’ cries does not seem to be part of the management plan.
Similarly, Jeremy Lawrence, deputy building surveyor at the KSAMC, said he was “aware of the concerns of the citizens” and acknowledged the KSAMC’s “responsibility to all citizens, including developers”. The moderator asked him a simple question: “Are you seeing an increase in the number of building breaches in the Corporate Area?” He gave a roundabout answer that did not focus on breaches:
“Ah, no, not necessarily. It is pretty much constant. Ahm, but what you will notice happening now is that you have a lot more construction happening within the major Corporate Area, you talking Kingston 6, Kingston 8, Kingston 10 and these are now large developments which mean the impact they have in the area is felt more.” Yes, but what about breaches?
In his opening remarks, Christopher Whyms-Stone, deputy chairman of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), resorted to a defensive cliché: “Change doesn’t come easy.” Later, in response to Enith Williams’ concerns about the failure of government agencies to listen to community stakeholders, Whyms-Stone arrogantly spoke the truth: “And no, not all, not all of a community’s suggestions are going to be taken on board. It just does not work like that. Ahm, change is difficult. Not all will. But we have heard.” The moderator did not allow Ms Williams to respond. All she managed to get in was, “That’s not, that’s, no, that’s …”. And, yes, that’s precisely the problem. Concerned citizens are constantly shut down by government agencies.
HOLD DOWN AN TEK WEH
Many citizens’ associations have been writing to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the KSAMC about developers who break the law in a variety of ways. They buy houses in single-family neighbourhoods, knock them down and build high-density apartments without approval. Some of these developers often take legal action to change restrictive covenants long after they start construction. Many of them exceed the number of rooms for which they have gotten building permits. One-bedroom units magically turn into three. There are usually no regular checks made by the KSAMC to ensure that developers are following approved plans. So anything goes.
Ignoring negative press seems to be the preferred strategy of malfunctioning government agencies to cope with their institutionalised incompetence. Complaints by citizens are not acknowledged. Letters simply go unanswered. Appeals all the way up to the Office of the Prime Minister produce no results. It appears as if government agencies are not held accountable for their inaction. It’s just business as usual.
Citizens’ associations across the country need to join forces, parish by parish, to claim power and fight for our communities. The target of this collective action should not only be developers. The primary offenders are the slack government agencies that do not control the developers. Instead of each association paying expensive legal fees to deal with a single local problem, the united associations could together file class action suits against the Government. We must fearlessly confront delinquent agencies that are failing to protect long-established residential communities from the unwelcome advances of rapacious developers.
It is rape. Hold down an tek weh. A huge apartment building is put up next to your house. It robs you of light and air and, perhaps, even a desirable view. And privacy! Friends of mine who faced this problem in Millsborough were forced to raise the height of the fence separating them from an invasive development. They planted vines that prevented prying eyes from looking into their bedroom. They were lucky. It could have been a high-rise apartment building.
Across Jamaica, citizens are sick and tired of the failure of government agencies to do their job. It looks as if the only thing NEPA plans to do is to obey the orders of politicians. The same thing seems to go for the KSAMC. And the single authority the NRCA appears to respect is the ruling party. My visionary headline will soon become reality. It’s just a matter of time.