If Your Home Could Speak

Five steps to a new downtown

This is the final article in a series on the subject of downtown development. We have attempted to show that the popular thinking about the subject is based upon a number of popular myths, three of which are:

1. That we can change the level of commercial activity and opportunity downtown by simply addressing the condition of buildings.

2. That downtown is simply a shopping area, which can be replaced in our lives by other forms of commerce, like malls and shopping centers.

3. That downtown can be brought back into its former life through the actions of our central government and its appointed representatives.

The change from the present to a new downtown requires a number of strategies not based upon the elimination of those myths, and this is to suggest a five-step process for beginning that change. But first, a short story.

Ephraim and his best friend George struggled as they pushed the 2009 Corvette out onto the street, then into its spot in the front of Ephraim’s house. Ephraim’s wife had finally “convinced” him to get rid of his prized possession, now derelict and in need of a lot of attention. While pushing, the two friends reminisced about the glory days of that once-hot symbol of Ephraim’s manhood. When it was in place on the side of the street, they taped the red “for sale” sign on the windshield and sat back to wait for the calls. After a week with no calls, George suggested that a paint job might help, and helped arrange a wrecker to get the vehicle to and from the paint shop.

Now the calls came, but no offers. As soon as people realized that the car was not working, they seemed to lose interest. The paint job and “new” used tires had not really helped. The car needed to be running if it was to be useful to anyone. But it was so pretty!

The present downtown suffers from a lack of almost everything, the two most urgent being excitement and the presence of Bahamian shoppers. In our articles, we have attempted to show that for a downtown – any downtown – to be successful it must be a living, working organism, with success or progress measured by the extent to which the downtown “works”. We have suggested the parts of the engine that have to be functional for the downtown to “work”:

• It must be a place where the people of the town spend time as part of their commercial, social and cultural life.

• It must be a place where the record of their social journey (their history) and the record of their unique accomplishments are a part of the experience of the place.

• It must declare their uniqueness in history and in personality through displays of their cultural assets and their unique lifestyle.

• It must contribute to the expression of their sovereignty and their commitment to order.

In a judgement of a downtown, to the extent that the downtown meets these requirements, it could be said to “work”. Downtown Nassau does not work. It does not provide the local community with any significant contribution to their social, cultural or commercial life, either as traders or as customers. The record of their history and their accomplishments as Bahamians are not evident. The cultural presentations of the various Bahamian communities are almost completely absent. And the expressions of sovereignty are those of a former, pre-independence administration. For the local community, the present downtown is like the derelict car in front of Ephraim’s house. No amount of paint will bring it back to its glory days, or anywhere else, for that matter, which brings us to the final key in our approach.

Clearly there is a need for major repairs. We can say that we now know what has to happen to make downtown work, but how do we begin the process of transformation? This is where, in our opinion, the most important work must be done.

Downtown cannot be “fixed” by good ideas emanating from the Cabinet or the House of Assembly. The 2009 Corvette could not be fixed by the police or the Ministry of Transport. It would have to go to the mechanic, someone whose only job is to fix cars. Downtown cannot be fixed by legislators (although they have a role to play). It requires dedicated attention from someone who understands the factors that must work together for the success of downtown and sufficient autonomy to work without interference.

So the question is, how can we convert the present nine-to-five, tourist-only shopping zone into a sustainable, 24-hour zone of excitement, with sidewalks packed with Bahamians and visitors, and wealth-building opportunities while increasing its profile as a “working” downtown for the City of Nassau and its suburbs?

Here are five steps for the creation of a new and more sustainable Downtown Nassau:

1. Declare downtown a legislated municipality, with legally defined boundaries. This is necessary both for the ability to establish dedicated programs and establish economic control.

2. Incentivize the supply of convenient downtown parking, the lifeblood of retail, while educating investors and the business community about the importance of parking to the success of a downtown.

3. Create new symbols of sovereignty (Parliament, public square, etc.) Rawson Square is a symbol of a colonial phase and deserves being part of our historical narrative, but it no longer represents an independent Bahamas.

4. Create significant (and prestigious) opportunities for cultural expression, such as places designed to celebrate music, theater and the exhibition of art and craft in landmark architecture.

5. Establish dedicated municipal administration with the following declared agenda: the development of a strategic plan for downtown; creating and administering a master plan for the area, including the establishment and delineation of an historic zone; assisting a merchant’s association with the development of the shopping patterns, business mix, customer service and environmental standards in the area designed to maximize pedestrian traffic and increase both convenience and opportunities for profit; and ensuring a program of activities and events designed to encourage local presence downtown. Encouraging local presence downtown is essential for the sustainability of the downtown.

These five steps, we believe, will lead to a sustainable pattern of commercial and cultural growth and the enhancement of the Bahamian identity in a working Downtown Nassau. And by the way, they would also create major benefit for the economy.

• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full-service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com, design blog at https://rahmblings.wordpress.com and like its Facebook page. The firm can be contacted by phone at 356-9080 or by email at pradesigns@yahoo.com or prahming@gmail.com. The firm’s mission is to help clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.

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