Demolition plan! Firefighters inspect the building at 80 Church Street after putting out the blaze that destroyed it on Wednesday. Successive governments have not effectively tackled the long-standing problem of dilapidated buildings in downtown Kingston which were built for commercial purposes but have been transformed into huge tenements and fire hazards.
But town clerk at the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) Robert Hill says the KSAC, though strapped for resources, is moving to have some of these dangerous buildings torn down. He spoke with the Jamaica Observer yesterday in the wake of Wednesday’s massive fire at 80 Church Street, which killed three people including a child. The problem, Hill said, is complex because oftentimes the council is unaware that people are even occupying many of the buildings. “It has been a cultural norm for many generations… persons have abandoned their commercial concerns, they are difficult to find, and persons have just taken them over and turned them into residences,” Hill explained. “On many occasions we wouldn’t know that persons are living there. Sometimes on the face of it we think the buildings are unoccupied, until there are cases like these,” he said in reference to Wednesday’s fire. “Many times these places are boarded up in such a manner that you think they are vacant.” Jamaica Fire Brigade spokesman Emilio Ebanks expressed similar concerns. “The difficulty it poses for us in most cases is that it’s not until something happens that we know that somebody lives in them [and] we don’t have much in terms of law where we can go to private property [to do inspections],” he told the
Ebanks said fire service personnel only have the right to inspect public spaces. “So what we normally do is, when it’s possible, we get into some of those communities, we have talks with them, and give demonstrations about how to prevent fires,” he said. The town clerk said the KSAC will be “paying more attention to these structures”, and that it has in fact just launched an initiative to lodge caveats in the courts against the titles for these properties, once it is apparent that the owners have abandoned their interest. “[These are] properties that appear dangerous…unsightly, or teetering on the edge of collapse. If we can’t find the owners after a certain time, we find the titles through the National Land Agency [and] the courts provide a period of time after which we have to act. So if we see somewhere that requires demolition, if it’s near to where persons gather, or another building, we move in. but the legal process binds us to a particular time frame. We have just started to administer those activities,” Hill said. He noted that surveys are being conducted on buildings in areas downtown, such as Mark and Luke lanes, that seem to have no owner, and are dangerous or fire hazards. Hill stressed that the problem is multi faceted, because, for example, it was discovered that the building next to 80 Church Street houses an illegal bakery where products are being made for sale on the nation’s streets. This, he said, raised an entirely different set of concerns about public health. He said the KSAC, working with the social security arm of the Ministry of Labour, would be seeking to assist the people who were left homeless after Wednesday’s fire, which also resulted in the death of nine year-old Jordan Marsh and his mother Ann-Marie Green, as well as Howard Thompson – the man who eyewitnesses said tried to save them. The town clerk said the KSAC is in dialogue with the owner of the property, who showed up at the council on Wednesday. Hill said that, while he knew of no immediate plans to improve the housing stock in downtown Kingston as part of the much-touted redevelopment of the area, there has certainly been significant interest in space for business process outsourcing operations, particularly on the waterfront. But he said the process, before any of that could come to fruition, is “lengthy and bureaucratic”. Last year February, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) announced that it had concluded arrangements with Yosamini Holdings Limited to lease the Victoria Pier building on the Kingston waterfront for 25 years. Yosamini has proposed to transform the property into an ‘A’ class restaurant with lounge, sports gaming facility, art gallery, and outdoor entertainment area. At the time, the UDC said that the lease of the property was in line with its plans for the redevelopment of downtown Kingston. It followed the sale of the Oceana and Jamintel buildings, development of which will act as a catalyst for the renewal of the city. The property, located on the seaward side of Ocean Boulevard, has been unoccupied for more than 15 years and comprises 1,962.93 square metres.
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