Winds of change blowing in Port of Spain

After 6 pm, the city becomes a ghost town and it is hoped that its repopulation will change this.  - SUREASH CHOLAI
After 6 pm, the city becomes a ghost town and it is hoped that its repopulation will change this. - SUREASH CHOLAI

This three-part series looks at the Port of Spain revitalisation project, its progress and how some in the business, building and construction industries feel about it as it moves along. The Prime Minister launched the project in 2020 and aims to establish the city as a leading place for commerce, entertainment and culture. One of its major aims is to also increase the numbers of people living in the city which dwindled over decades.

The late poet and playwright Derek Walcott described Port of Spain in his poem Night in the Gardens of Port of Spain, using descriptors such as “coals of gold oranges” and “alleys odorous with shucked oyster shells.”

The city in Walcott’s poem is not the one most people identify with today.

On a walk through the city one is often greeted with the stench of faecal matter, socially-displaced people, traffic, crime. The nightlife described by Walcott is a thing of the past, as it largely becomes a ghost town after 6 pm.

But mayor Joel Martinez believes the city is ready for change as a revitalisation project inches along.

It's about two years since the Prime Minister launched the project. Dr Rowley announced major plans to restore life to the city, improve traffic circulation, enhance property values, discourage criminal activity, unlock private capital and stimulate the economy.

On May 4 sod was turned for a private housing development around the Queen's Park Savannah. Dr Kongshiek Achong Low and Dr Boris Yufe's vision is that it will be a mix of commercial and residential spaces. - Sureash Cholai

A 2016 economic profile done for the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government showed the city's population decreased between 2000 and 2011. In 1990, the population was 46, 901; in 2000 it was 49,031; and in 2011 it was 37,074.

In a March press release on, the Government announced headway had been made. It said then Minister of Planning and Development Camille Robinson-Regis – as chair of the Revitalisation of Port of Spain Ministerial Committee – had received progress reports from sub-committees and preparations for future projects.

A significant portion of the overall goals were reportedly on schedule and Cabinet received a proposal about land acquisition for relocating the homeless, a key part of the project, it said.

It added that a study for concepts for a monument for Ariapita Avenue and proposals had been submitted for mixed-use developments of the Salvatori site, Independence Square and Frederick Street and the Piccadilly Street Housing Development.

Martinez does not know what the monument would be, but said it was not a monument to anyone in particular.

There is now a car park at the Salvatori site, once the home of the Salvatori building which over the years housed a general store, oil companies and government ministries.

Other projects include an inner-city tram system, repaving and widening Wrightson Road, expanding the Emperor Valley Zoo, removing the Port of Spain Prison and the Smart City plan.

A major aim of the project is increasing the number of people living in the city.

The PM commissioned the Town and Country Planning Division and the ministries of Planning and Development, Health, Social Development and Housing and Local Government to come together to start the process, Martinez said.

“Port of Spain is our capital city, it was renowned as the Manhattan of the Caribbean and so on, but it has lost its lustre over the years, and with the economic issues we encountered, it did not give us that opportunity to put into train these projects before.”

Citing the refurbishment of the Red House, the Magnificent Seven buildings on Queen's Park West and work on the old Heritage Library, Martinez said Trinidad and Tobago has the footprint of a modern city.

The Government plans to construct a number of residential/commercial spaces through public/private partnerships.

Martinez said the model being used is like the apartment complex at One Woodbrook Place, a mix of commercial and residential spaces. He said 400-plus people live at One Woodbrook Place, which also houses a panyard, restaurants, an Imax cinema and a number of other businesses.

ONE WOODBROOK PLACE: Part of the Port of Spain revitalisation project's aim is to repopulate the city. It hopes to do so with new public/private housing projects. It will use the One Woodbrook Place model. - Sureash Cholai

Before its construction, there was “one resident, two panyards, a transport yard, a cinema and a printery.”

Martinez said the Ministry of Housing planned to build housing at Piccadilly Street, East Port of Spain, in a “welcome move.”

He added that housing has also been earmarked for the space at the old Government Printery, Tragarete Road, at the old PowerGen plant at Wrightson Road and Memorial Plaza, between Charlotte and Frederick Streets.The use of these spaces will do “what most modern cities do – they go up and create a lot more apartment-style housing for people in the city.”

The administration wants people to interact with spaces in the city, because there are parks and squares that are not used, but are maintained.

“The uses of it are not what it was because, again, a lot more citizens lived in the city over the years. Because Port of Spain developed so rapidly and we did not have the model of infrastructure were bought and replaced by commercial buildings.”

Using the Savannah as an example, Martinez said in other cities the space around it would have been littered with residential properties.

Businesses quickly bought the space there and this did not add the same value that residential property would have, he said. The revitalisation project was now a chance to fix that.

“Then you saw a private entity, just recently, turn the sod for a housing project at the Savannah and we have welcomed that."

On May 4 the sod was turned for a private housing development around the Savannah. Dr Kongshiek Achong Low and Dr Boris Yufe’s vision is that it will be a mix of commercial and residential spaces.

"Right away, by the Government talking about it and starting to get things rolling, people are starting to take the initiative.”

Martinez said all the plans were being worked on, and the old PowerGen plant was being decommissioned.

Ariapita Avenue changes and plans for Charlotte Street

Plans announced after TT’s UNESCO Creative City designation in the area of music in 2019 are scheduled to begin this year. They include creating a Walk of Fame similar to the one in Hollywood.

“We will do that throughout the city in various parts. We will start by the National Academy for the Performing Arts.”

Beautification is also being done on Brian Lara Promenade.

“I have spoken to the Unit Trust Corporation and the Central Bank, who have taken the first three blocks of the promenade to beautify it. I am speaking to other commercial residents of the Independence Square area to get them to do the same thing.

“Each block will have a different look, but will have a theme that will flow right through and go up to where Winston “Spree” Simon (monument) is, Columbus Square...

“And we would like to do something with Tamarind Square, maybe make it a cultural park.”

Martinez said the repaving of Ariapita Avenue and making parts of it colourful is scheduled to begin “in a couple of weeks.”

An earlier proposal was pedestrianising the avenue. But Martinez said that was "just an idea" and would depend on the residents of Woodbrook and environs most affected by traffic, pedestrian or other, on the avenue.

“They did a walk-through just two weeks ago. We are going to start that project in a short while, which is to rejuvenate Ariapita Avenue and give it a different façade.”

Port of Spain mayor Joel Martinez says changes are coming to Ariapita Avenue among them giving the pavement a facelift and making parts of it colourful. Adam Smith Square will be used to house the material. - Sureash Cholai

There were also plans for an arch, but the committee may move away from that and build another "monument," he said.

Martinez also wants to see Charlotte Street pedestrianised. He said he felt proud when part of the street was designated as Chinatown in 2019, brought international recognition and added to the country’s appeal as a tourist destination.

However, he believes work is still needed: “And this was part of the develop Chinatown into a pedestrian area. So from store to store would be one flat space,” possibly cobblestoned.

He hopes this would lend to the development of East Port of Spain.

He said the street’s vendors would have attractive carts and would be able to leave them there, properly covered in the evenings.

Martinez was certain he would be able to get sponsorship for this plan, but said it had to have the “will” of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA).

Crime and other social ills

While crime might hinder or cause some to question living in the city, Martinez said it has done well to manage crime.

The city goes from South Quay to Cocorite, to St Clair to Newtown, to Woodbrook to St James, people live there and it is safe, he believes.

“Crime happens in Chaguanas, crime happens in Fyzabad, crime happens in all of the different parts of TT…the city has crime.”

Martinez said people would have heard fewer and fewer incidents of crime in the city.

He said Port of Spain will never rid itself of crime but it hopes to manage it, by protecting the citizenry more and putting in infrastructure that will help the police and traffic management function.

This is what one would call a smart city.

“If you’ve travelled abroad and look at modern cities, which are smart hubs now, you will hear that they don’t only look at traffic and licence plates with the cameras. They also look for criminal activity.”

Brian Lara Promenade will also be beautified says Port of Spain mayor Joel Martinez. He reached out to corporate bodies around the promenade to help with this. - SUREASH CHOLAI

He said cameras are needed to keep an eye on the city.

“If modern cities are doing it and they have not imposed on the citizen, then why can’t we do it?”

He said the city has to continue to install a mix of public and private cameras.

Martinez said 30 years ago, people shied away from some spaces in the US, like the Bronx, but now those areas have become prime residential spaces.

“I think the city is ready for change and I think the winds of change are coming our way,” he said.

Continues next week


"Winds of change blowing in Port of Spain"

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