By RICHARD COULSON
“I would like to see them develop Bay Street, and if it would happen that would be great,”
“There are no words to describe it. Sidewalks are filthy. The buildings are derelict,”
“Drab and dirty, the city cries for physical renewal,”
- Prime Minister Perry Christie.
Do these quotes reflect the current state of eastern Bay Street? Yes, but it so happens that they are more than 10 years old, taken from the Bahamas Business edition dated January 9, 2006. There is no better example of the huge volume of hot air, and little practical effort, that has been spent on redeveloping the decaying, moribund Bay Street blocks stretching east from East Street.
We can go back to 2004 and find Perry Christie announcing he has created a private sector committee, co-chaired by the late Norman Solomon and George Mackey, “to assist the Government in spearheading a renaissance of the city”.
That led to EDAW, the Atlanta design firm inspired by architect Todd Hill, being paid $1 million for its grandiose ‘Nassau Harbour - Bay Street Regeneration’ master plan, a glorious concept of ‘One Vision, Three Districts’. Mr Christie called it “the first steps in the transformation of Bay Street”. Of course, no further steps were ever taken, as neither Government nor the private sector, local or foreign, made any hard investment commitments.
At the 2005 Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) convention, Mr Christie proclaimed that all Bay Street shipping interests would be relocated to a new $200 million port facility near Clifton Pier. Indeed, all the commercial docks were moved - but not to Clifton Pier. As soon as the Free National Movement (FNM) came to power in 2007, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham abruptly cancelled that plan, a decision that led to the successful container port run by the Arawak Cay Port Development Company, with profitable shares offered to the Bahamian public.
But, with shipping removed, Mr Ingraham never did much else to help eastern Bay Street. The Downtown Nassau Partnership (DNP) was formed as a government-private sector joint venture but, with no funds to invest, has proven to be a well-intentioned planning centre, encouraging the Pompey Museum and Watling’s Brewery, but nothing in the eastern zone. Its long serving co-chairman, Charles Klonaris, made the first tangible improvement in that area by leading a family venture in converting the run-down Moses shopping plaza into the elegant waterfront Elizabeth-on-Bay complex, opened in 2010.
Just before the PLP returned in May 2012, the usually prescient columnist, Larry Smith, in his Bahama Pundit column made the rash prediction ‘Revitalisation of Nassau Well Underway’. He praised Mr Klonaris’ adventurous project, which unfortunately gets insufficient traffic to make money, sitting in a commercially dead zone with no parking anywhere nearby. He reported the Kelly family planning to develop the former Betty K terminal off East Street north, although the family soon abandoned their initiative after receiving zero response from the Government to applications for zoning and building permits to work with adjacent owners on a block-long commercial and entertainment centre. Nothing, to date, has been heard of the Bethells’ concept of developing 15 acres of waterfront property where Tropical Shipping once had its terminal. The four-acre Union Wharf freight terminal, “up for grabs at $22 million”, was eventually grabbed for much less and still sits vacant - more on this below.
A flurry of hope for the eastern zone emerged in October 2014 when the Government announced the sale of the British Colonial Hilton hotel and adjacent property to China Construction America (CCA), the same company that was struggling - unsuccessfully, to-date - to complete Baha Mar. Mr Christie indicated that the Chinese would do much more, undertaking to design and execute a plan for the renovation of the entire downtown area. Among other things, as soon as they finished Baha Mar, they would start to work on the much promoted seafront boardwalk stretching from Rawson Square to the Paradise Island Bridge, although no plan was ever disclosed to the many property owners along the way.
Mr Hill, the EDAW leader from 2004, was brought back into the picture. Now with another firm, DTJ Design, he was contacted to prepare a new broad-brush scheme for revitalising downtown into “a living city”. Local architect, Norman Foster, was retained to be the micro-designer, both being compensated by some combination of Government and the private stakeholders in the DNP.
To date, these grandiose proposals have proven to be another heavy breath of hot air. When I spoke to Daniel Liu, boss of CCA, early last year, he told me, yes, he had a plan ready, money would be no problem, but Government had not told him to proceed, and apparently is still sitting silent. In several conversations with Mr Hill, the latest in December last year, I was told his firm was working hard and would soon produce its work. Just last month, Mr Klonaris learned that their project was in Government hands, but it was not yet available to him, despite his position as DNP co-chair.
Of course, frantic activity can be seen just west of the British Colonial Hilton, next to the popular Junkanoo Beach. CCA has nearly completed the eight-storey parking garage, and is laying the foundations for the glitzy residential/hotel/shopping complex known as The Pointe. Having examined the plans, I spoke to one of the Miami architects. “Yes,” he said, “we know it’s controversial, but we think it’s what both tourists and natives want.”
Possibly; I reserve judgment. However popular it may be, it will draw more foot and vehicle traffic away from central downtown and will do nothing to invigorate eastern Bay Street. The only optimism arises from the new Symonette/Bethell Bay Street Marina, with its many occupied berths in front of the Luciano’s of Chicago restaurant. But that’s a long trudge from Rawson Square. I see the few adventurous tourists, who turn east after admiring Queen Victoria and the up-market Gucci shop, soon overcome by boredom and dismay. They pass a few struggling retailers such as Lorene’s and Hoffer Sport (whose Cable Beach store is far more profitable), and the dank Nassau Gallery, and then pass block after block of vacant or boarded up shop-fronts - zombie properties in a ghost town. The former Royal Bank branch premises has still not found a new tenant, and the block-long Corona Hotel has for years offered its grimy façade only to cockroaches. Tourists shun the zone, and so do Bahamian shoppers who can find no place to park, since eastern Bay Street has been turned into a narrow raceway for cars speeding to the Paradise Island Bridge and the proven charms of Atlantis. Surely these derelict buildings have not been paying property tax for years. Why are they not seized by our spanking new Revenue Department and offered for sale at bargain prices to buyers with a businessman’s eye for growth?
But that is not the way for the Christie Government, which does not even have the commercial savvy to make a profit on its own real estate. The prime harbourfront lot of the former Imperial Lighthouse Service, used only for a parking lot and the Government Publications Building (desperate for more storage space), could be turned into a successful commercial development. But it seems that no bids are ever sought for either a sale or joint venture with a reputable partner.
The most glaring case of Government indifference, even contempt, for developing eastern Bay Street is their approval of the Union Wharf transaction. That 3.9 acre lot, originally a dock and warehouse owned by Pioneer Shipping until they closed, was put up for sale by the mortgagee bank at the unrealistic price of $22 million. Finally, last year the local broker was able to get $10 million, but was enjoined from giving the name of the buyer. In November, it was identified in a newspaper as Galaxy Group Ltd, a Barbados company controlled by one Richard Barrow and incorporated by Barbadian accountants and - surprise - Bahamian ‘business executive’ Eric T Gibson, brother of Cabinet Minister Shane Gibson.
I have been told on good authority that a major undisclosed shareholder is Peter Nygard, who is, of course, well known to both the Minister and the Government. The issue is not simply that Mr Christie’s Investments Board allowed this property to be sold to foreign interests, but that we have heard no plans for how it is to be developed. It holds the key to the renewal of eastern Bay Street, yet is allowed to sit month after month, vacant, locked even against parking, without a hint of work in progress. Nothing can be accomplished in the area until the mysterious owners are compelled to come forward with a plan. Or possibly just sell at a nice profit.
The debate continues whether this broad stretch of downtown, with its multiple owners and uses, can be successfully re-energised by a consortium of local stakeowners working in co-operation, or will require a major foreign developer to step in and impose a unified plan as owner or controlling partner - as the US Dart group did in creating the vast Camana Bay community next to the Cayman capital of Georgetown. Either solution is feasible, but will require the Government to set the controlling guidelines, such as height and density restrictions, determine zoning rules, and set tax rates and new Immigration policies.
These are major tasks but, in his Budget message, Mr Christie said not a word about downtown, leaving us to conclude that he has lost interest in our capital city as a generator of tourism and foreign investment. This indifference is likely to continue until the election of a new political regime. Only then may the cruise lines find nighttime Nassau becoming lively enough to arrange overnight stops.
• NB: Richard Coulson is a retired lawyer and investment banker born in Nassau and from a long line of Bahamians. He is a financial consultant and author of A Corkscrew Life - adventures of a travelling financier.