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Sunday, June 16, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsLand-Use Experts See Unique Opportunity In Frederiksted

Land-Use Experts See Unique Opportunity In Frederiksted

Frederiksted faces a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake itself, land-use experts visiting from the mainland said Friday.

With $1 billion in funds available for housing development in the territory, communities like St. Croix’s southeast can dramatically change, said representatives of the Urban Land Institute, a land-use think tank. Plans to build 3,000 new affordable housing units are a start. But it’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Experts from the Urban Land Institute will issue their recommendations in a report in September about Frederiksted land use. (Screenshot from WTJX feed)

The ten Urban Land Institute volunteers spent the week doing a deep — if brief — dive into Frederiksted’s needs. They found creative, achievable paths forward that engage the entire community, not just those seeking affordable housing. They plan to release their full report in early September.

Speaking briefly about their findings, the panel found cause for optimism: Frederiksted has lovely West Indian vernacular buildings, a dramatic and largely-overlooked history to share with would-be visitors and new residents, and an engaged population eager to solve long-lingering problems.

“We’re looking for participatory inclusion, not just building houses,” said Tyrone Rachal of Atlanta’s Urban Key Capital Partners. “To think about the future is absolutely essential.”

Affordable housing means housing security. It’s more than roofs over heads, important as that is. It means people don’t feel compelled to go off-island to live and work. It means those who go off-island for their education are more inclined to return, reversing the brain drain from the Virgin Islands to the mainland, they said.

Affordable housing also isn’t only about low-income people; it matters to the entire community. When a neighborhood’s reputation suffers, businesses are less likely to thrive, and new businesses are less likely to get needed funding. Investors shy away.

When the neighborhood narrative is changed, new investors become interested.

If St. Croix’s vibrant history were better known on the mainland, they said, countless new job opportunities would arise. By creating events, public art, and community involvement in celebrating Frederiksted’s history, the area’s brand will attract tourists, businesses, and new residents alike. St. Croix would need oral historians, tour developers and tour guides, librarians and document experts, sign makers, and more.

Filling those jobs also requires thoughtful investment. Job skills training and business incentives are a big part of the affordable housing equation.

The land-use panel urged creative ideas beyond the usual government subsidies. An increasing number of financial institutions are looking to invest in social returns as well as traditional business profits, they said.

Rachal warned about public skepticism of government. He and other speakers asked the government officials in charge of spending the money to engage in strong communication efforts. They also called on the larger community to get involved: Go to board meetings, read news accounts, and be an active participant.

Tyrone Rachal of Atlanta’s Urban Key Capital Partners, Dawn Arnold of Invest Atlanta, and Leon Walker, of DL3 Realty Advisors in Chicago, in Frederiksted Friday spoke on land use. (Screenshot from WTJX feed)

Too many communities, when given an opportunity to remake themselves with a large amount of money, simply spend it, they said; engaging subject matter experts like the Urban Land Institute was a smart move.

A good second step, they said, was to hire a Chief Housing Officer — someone whose sole job is to consider USVI housing issues. Rachal called such an office crucial.

Dawn Arnold of Invest Atlanta noted the difficulties and expense of building in the Virgin Islands. Her city has a similar plan to the V.I.’s, using that same $1 billion to build 20,000 new affordable housing units, not the 3,000 the territory hopes to muster.

Eric Rothman of HR&A Advisors in New York said it’s not just expensive to build here; it’s actually a lost opportunity.

“Importing goods means wealth creation, and job creation is being invested elsewhere,” Rothman said. Whenever possible, the USVI should buy local, hire local, and involve local community partners. This means strong trade schools and apprenticeship programs to generate a highly skilled and motivated workforce.

Leon Walker of DL3 Realty Advisors in Chicago said robust, affordable housing can actually determine the life expectancy of the surrounding community.

“Your zip code means more than your genetic code,” Walker said. “How do we go beyond the four walls?

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