Once again, downtown development is in the news. For over 30 years, there has been talk about downtown development. After the time, money spent on consultants and promises by several administrations, there is little evidence of a change. Why?
Callers to talk shows and those on the streets blame the government, the property owners and a mythical group called “dem people”. Meanwhile, we have spent millions for advice on how to get downtown to “return the charm” and to “get more people to live” downtown, supposedly because these are the prerequisites for the development of downtown. In fact, some of the strategies resulting from that advice are currently being manifested and according to the Downtown Nassau Partnership, we will see a much-revived downtown in three to five years. I hope they are right.
The question is, do the strategies really address the problem, or does that advice miss the fundamental, organic nature of a downtown? Do they dispel the multitude of misconceptions about the requirements for the development of a downtown and its sustainability? What is a downtown? Is it just an area full of shops? Why do people live or not live downtown? Why did our particular downtown die? Those paid for advice may have had the answers to these key questions as background to their reports, but they have apparently not shared them with us. How, then, can we judge the strategies derived from their advice?
Is downtown success a function of building condition? Is it about property ownership? Or is it about how many people shop there? We believe the success of a downtown requires several separate successes, very few of which, if any, are being discussed publicly. Yes, it must provide the community with a wide variety of opportunities for commercial success, but it must also provide anchors for the self-image of the community and provide it with a “voice”. Downtown is much more than a tourist shopping center.
The current approach to downtown development has been fed by a multitude of myths and beliefs that drive both what we do and how much we commit to it. In our opinion, this commitment to strategies, based on myths and misconceptions, is the reason there has been so little evidence of successful downtown development over the past three decades.
Over the next few weeks, we will try to untangle three of these myths and hopefully provide a set of parameters that, if addressed, might finally produce sustainable development downtown. We will attempt to dispel the following three myths of downtown development:
Myth #1: Dilapidated buildings don’t make money. We will show that commerce is about product and customer, not accommodations and that having no customers is not just a function of building condition.
Myth #2: Downtown is just a large commercial zone. We will explain the relationship between the downtown and the community it serves, providing the elements of its identity and more.
Myth #3: No bureaucracy needed. We will address the need to provide autonomous downtown leadership, both for the downtown to develop and to become sustainable. The downtown must have independent, downtown-focused administration.
The most important factor overlooked by the multitude of consultants offering advice is the fact that few local Bahamians shop downtown on any regular basis. In other words, for the people of the city of Nassau, the present downtown is not their downtown, it is not part of the daily life of the city and its people. Worse yet, that for most people, that’s OK. There is a belief that downtown is just for shopping, with no local purpose other than selling souvenirs to tourists. Strangely, many of the same Bahamians are concerned about the loss of our Bahamian identity. Hopefully, this discussion will show that the two issues are connected, that the development of downtown is not just about commerce, but about re-establishing the connection between a people and their environmental and cultural expression; and about recreating a place where the identity and vision of the people of the city is the very product that drives the life and sustainability of the downtown.
We know this is a tall order. But it is a necessary one. It is bigger than who owns property, how many tourists we get or which political party is in power. For us to declare success, downtown must be a living, breathing expression of who we are. Nothing less can be called success.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.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.