Open forum: From Neglect to Prosperity: A Guide to Frederiksted’s Waterfront Revitalization

Frederiksted’s Amazing Waterfront Promenade (Submitted photo)

From Neglect to Prosperity: A Guide to Frederiksted’s Waterfront Revitalization

Down the dead streets of sun-stoned Frederiksted,

the first free port to die for tourism,

strolling at funeral pace, I am reminded

of life not lost to the American dream;

 — St. Lucian Poet Derek Walcott, The Virgins. 1948

Growing up in Frederiksted, I cherished countless memories, from lively family gatherings at Dorsch Beach to the joys of the Learn to Swim summer camp at ‘the pool’, and the vibrant bustle of Saturday mornings at the fish market. However, returning home after a quarter-century of global travels, I cannot ignore the stark reality: Frederiksted, despite its stunning vistas and rich cultural heritage, pales in comparison to modern coastal towns in terms of year-round vibrancy, community engagement, and public safety.

With its breathtaking views, the waterfront stands as a testament to Frederiksted’s potential as a jewel of the Virgin Islands and holds the key to redeveloping Frederiksted town. Yet, it is evident that years of neglect and mismanagement have taken their toll, leaving Frederiksted longing for a revitalization fit for the 21st century. This Op-ed aims to dissect the detrimental planning decisions contributing to Frederiksted’s decline and proposes a roadmap towards its much-needed renaissance.

Missed Opportunities: The underutilization of Frederiksted’s waterfront represents a missed opportunity for economic stimulation and community enrichment. With its prime location and historical significance, this area has the potential to be a thriving hub of commerce, entertainment, and cultural exchange. Instead, it languishes in the shadows of a bevy of government assets, disconnected from the community and cutting off its pulse.

Path Forward: To unlock the full potential of Frederiksted, we must prioritize community-driven development initiatives that emphasize commerce, culture, innovation, sustainability, and connectivity.

We need to:

  1. Drastically reduce government activity on the waterfront and relocate ill-fitting businesses.
  2. Bring back the beach!
  3. Incentivize better-suited businesses to fill vacated storefronts
  4. Make Strand Street pedestrian-only
  5. Improve public safety

This includes reimagining the use of existing government-occupied buildings, fostering partnerships with local businesses, and creating incentives for private investment in commercial ventures. Additionally, public spaces should be re-designed to accommodate a variety of recreational activities, from waterfront dining to a permanent stage for Jazz in the Park and other community events, ensuring that the waterfront remains a vibrant destination for all.

Comparison to Other Waterfronts: As we look at other waterfront promenades in the Virgin Islands and thriving coastal cities worldwide, numerous lessons can be learned from their planning efforts. Stroll along the bustling waterfronts of Charlotte Amalie, Cruz Bay, or Christiansted, and you will find a vibrant tapestry of commerce, culture, and community. These areas boast diverse shops, restaurants, and recreational activities that attract locals and visitors alike. In contrast, it is often quiet and deserted during most trips to Frederiksted when a cruise ship is not in port. The reason is that Frederiksted’s waterfront is dominated by government activity and other ill-fitting pieces, leaving little room for commercial development or public engagement.   I estimate that over 65% of Frederiksted’s pristine waterfront south of the stadium has been dedicated to various government uses. Frederiksted’s waterfront contains the following: a courthouse, a ballpark, four local parks, a federal park, a public housing community, an abandoned senior citizen center, a library, two hospitals (one functioning, one abandoned), a hospital parking lot, and several government offices. Adding insult to injury, a manufacturing facility for dental water management products lies one block off the pier in the old Virgin Islands Community Bank Building. While these businesses and government offices may make great tenants, the unfortunate byproduct is that their collective presence has stifled commercial activity. After 5 PM on weekdays and on weekends, the town is deserted. The government can serve the city better by utilizing other parcels of Frederiksted real estate and leaving waterfront property for commercial, retail, and community-based activities. It is important to note that all other towns in the Virgin Islands have a shopping and entertainment district on their waterfront promenade that does not compete with government activity. This would be akin to the government placing a hospital in the middle of the boardwalk in Christiansted or placing the Supreme Court in the middle of Havensight.  That sounds silly, right?

Friendly disclaimer: During a recent guest appearance on a radio program, former Senator Adelbert M. Bryan challenged the benefit of moving government buildings out of Frederiksted. My answer to the legendary senator was that I fully advocate for these government assets to be a part of the town. However, I question the additional benefit of placing all these assets on prime waterfront property. Would the Supreme Court be less effective two blocks away from the waterfront? No. However, one can easily argue that retail shops and restaurants benefit from increased proximity to the waterfront.

A crucial aspect of revitalizing economic development zones involves the strategic relocation of businesses that do not align with the planned goals of these areas. Governments, recognizing the long-term benefits of cohesive economic zones, have sometimes provided financial incentives or compensation to facilitate the relocation of businesses that detract from the zone’s core function. For instance, to foster a pedestrian-friendly retail district, the government might offer relocation costs and a cash incentive for the dental water management manufacturer to move to a more suitable location, such as the Industrial Park. This not only aids in preserving the integrity and vision of the development zone but also supports the relocated businesses by helping them domicile in a neighborhood more suited to their operational needs. By carefully managing these transitions, cities can ensure that new and existing economic activity areas are optimized for success and sustainability.

Beach Nourishment and Lessons Learned from Thriving Coastal Cities: Look beyond the Virgin Islands, and you’ll find countless examples of waterfront revitalization projects that have transformed once-neglected areas into vibrant urban centers. Cities like San Francisco, Barcelona, and Sydney have capitalized on their waterfronts’ potential, creating dynamic spaces that attract residents and visitors alike. Frederiksted can learn valuable lessons from these success stories and apply them to its waterfront redevelopment efforts. For example, I admired a picture-perfect shoreline from my hotel room during a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, I noticed that the beach was almost too perfect. The beach was very wide and maintained that width for the entire coastline. Impossible! After some brief internet sleuthing, I discovered that Rio and many coastal communities worldwide participate in a practice known as “beach nourishment,” which is defined as placing additional sand on the beach or near the shore.

Furthermore, this process is prevalent in Brazil and widely used in the United States. Since 1923, the United States has spent $9 billion rebuilding its beaches, with the most famous project being the reconstruction of Miami Beach, which cost $87 million and took approximately five years. Before beach nourishment, Miami Beach was, in many places, too narrow to walk along, especially during high tide. The resulting economic impact on the surrounding communities has been remarkable. Today, one cannot imagine Miami without Miami Beach.

In addition to the economic benefits, oceanographers highly recommend sustainable beach nourishment strategies to protect against storms. According to the US Army Corp of Engineers, a wide, nourished beach absorbs wave energy, protects upland communities from flooding, and mitigates erosion. Nourishment costs are estimated to be one to four million dollars per coastline mile, which should equal an approximately $10 million project for the Frederiksted waterfront. That would be money well spent. In addition, beach nourishment projects in the United States are usually funded by the federal government and executed by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Typically, the federal government pays approximately two-thirds of nourishment costs, and the local and state governments combine to fund the remainder. In small communities like Dare County, North Carolina, a Beach Nourishment Fund was established to collect occupancy taxes and help fund the project. The Virgin Islands Government could do the same to fund beach nourishment projects throughout the territory.

I remember playing on the beach below the Frederiksted waterfront as a kid. However, the cumulative effect of numerous storms has decimated that beach. All that remains is a vast network of rocks. We must bring the beach back and ensure that it remains for future generations. Utilizing sustainable beach nourishment strategies, we can make the beach even bigger than it was before. If we bring the beach back to the waterfront, people will follow. A 1989 New Jersey poll found that 74% of respondents said the New Jersey shore was “going downhill.” By 1998, only 27% thought the New Jersey shore was in decline, with 86% saying that the shore was one of New Jersey’s best assets. The difference in perception between 1989 and 1998 was due to the construction of the world’s largest beach nourishment project.

Tax Incentives for New Frederiksted Businesses: Frederiksted needs more economic activity, and our government should take the lead on incentivizing new Frederiksted businesses by creating a series of programs and initiatives focused on attracting business activity to St. Croix’s west end. Research has shown that public-private partnership is the best model for revitalizing economically depressed neighborhoods. Governments have created economic incentives for business development in formerly blighted areas throughout the country. For example, the City of Chicago created an online site selection tool to market vacant and historic properties to aspiring entrepreneurs needing real estate. The City of Myrtle Beach created a financial incentive program worth up to $2 million to encourage new economic activity in designated areas. Note that these programs do not have to be exclusive to new businesses; they can also target existing companies. The City of Philadelphia launched a business expansion program in target neighborhoods that gave local businesses a 50% grant for business expansion activities, up to $25,000.

We need to give people more reasons to visit Frederiksted besides its beautiful surrounding beaches and carnival. And we need to ensure that people continue coming year-round. Similar to Christiansteds’ Art Thursdays or Jump Up, Frederiksted needs a routine, widely marketed activity to draw the entire island’s dollars to our town.

We may need to get creative to attract businesses to Frederiksted, but I am confident we have the raw materials to succeed.

If the Frederiksted waterfront is key to unlocking Frederiksted’s economic success, then Strand Street is the keychain. We need to re-envision “The Strand”. Vehicular traffic and parking along the waterfront promenade serve little to no purpose. We need to make Strand Street pedestrian-only, fostering additional economic activity. We have tested this concept many times for political rallies, Jazz in the Park, and other community-based events. As a child, I have fond memories of attending Harbor Night – a bi-weekly block party where cruise ships would stay in port until 8 PM, and entertainment, food, and fun were had by locals and tourists alike. Vehicular traffic and parking must be banned permanently on Strand Street. The approximately 20 eliminated parking spaces will not be missed.

Public Safety: A key benefit of transforming the Frederiksted waterfront into a pedestrian-only zone is the significant improvement in public safety. The area’s reputation for being unsafe, particularly after dark, deters residents and visitors from enjoying the waterfront’s potential as a community space. By restricting vehicular access, the risk of accidents is greatly reduced, and the area becomes less accessible for potential criminal activities. Furthermore, a well-designed pedestrian zone would include improved lighting, surveillance cameras, and regular patrols, proven deterrents to crime. These changes make the waterfront safer and more inviting, encouraging more people to visit after sunset and revitalizing the area as a vibrant evening destination. By fostering a safer environment, we can rebuild trust and confidence among the community members, enticing them to return and enjoy the improved waterfront.

Conclusion: Frederiksted’s waterfront has the potential to become a thriving economic and cultural hub, but realizing this vision requires bold action and community collaboration. As we re-envision the Frederiksted waterfront, I urge our leaders to not only replace what was there before but also to utilize foresight to help Frederiksted unlock its true potential. As we position the Virgin Islands to compete with other Caribbean destinations, we must also include plans to make Frederiksted more enjoyable for us. By drawing inspiration from successful waterfront revitalization projects worldwide, we can transform our beloved, sleepy town into a dynamic space that reflects the spirit and vitality of the Virgin Islands. It is time for Frederiksted to move into the 21st century.  Working together, we can reimagine a Freedom City that we can all be proud of.

About the Author

Jed JohnHope (Submitted photo)

Jed JohnHope is president of Generation Next, an organization driven to make meaningful, enduring change in our beloved islands. In addition, Mr. JohnHope is a former Investment Banker and Professional Engineer. He is a strategy and finance professional with over twenty years of experience in the Energy, Manufacturing, Financial Services, and Oil and Gas sectors. This experience includes significant work within the USVI. Former employers include Morgan Stanley, the Hess Corporation, Liberty Mutual, and ARCADIS. Mr. JohnHope is a native Crucian and an alumnus of the Good Hope School, the University of Delaware, London Business School, and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In his spare time, Jed is an avid chess player, traveler, and CrossFit athlete.