City Hall ‘intervention’

Once in a while the government does something which no one can find fault with. Such was the case last Wednesday when Dr Luncheon told the media at his weekly press briefing that the administration had approved a substantial sum for the rehabilitation of City Hall. We reported the Head of the Presidential Secretariat as saying that the building could “collapse at any time,” and given that, the government was looking at comprehensive renovation and had resolved to fast-track interventions directed towards that end.

It is no news to any Georgetown dweller that the dignified building with its fairyland touches is on the brink of collapse. A year ago Nigel Renwick, one of two architects from TVA Consultants of Grenada who came to give the building a preliminary assessment, described it as being in “cardiac arrest.” Together with Ihosvany De Oca Morales, he issued a damning report which identified “water ingress” as the most important reason for the structure’s deterioration. Owing to the water leaks and the exposure of power lines, the two consultants recommended that the building be disconnected from the electrical network to avoid the risk of fire. It seems safe to assume that the indomitable Ms Sooba, the acting Town Clerk, has not instructed that this be done.

The report, which made depressing reading, drew attention to defective guttering, large portions of which were either missing, blocked or had become disconnected; damaged valleys; degraded window sills; and inadequate shingles. Then there was the large water tank on the first deck level of the tower which the consultants said should be relocated, while in addition, the whole issue of drainage around the building, they advised, would have to be addressed. They had other observations and recommendations to make, but they did emphasise that a structural analysis of the building was needed because of settlement, as well as a detailed architectural investigation.

It will be remembered, of course, that prior to the election of 2011 the government gave $20 million towards emergency repairs for the building, but a heritage-challenged City Engineer, who apparently could not distinguish between “commercial” windows and those suitable for a historical property, was responsible for the project being curtailed and $15 million being returned to the government. It is a lesson of which the central administration should take note.

The report did observe that restoration would be a complex process which cannot be undertaken in its entirety by only one party. “This is a clear opportunity for the various institutions and heritage organizations together with the political forces and civil society to come together in a unique effort where public awareness plays a vital role,” wrote the consultants. They went on to propose that an independent action committee be given the authority to shepherd the rehabilitation process.

Well unfortunately this is Guyana and not Grenada, and if we are to get all the organizations, etc, together that the consultants cited, not much is going to happen in a hurry, if ever. As for the independent action committee, the government is allergic to the word ‘independent.’ In this case, speed is of the essence – at least for the initial rescue stage as it relates to the water problem, etc, and for that, what is all important is the right technical expertise; this is not an undertaking to be left in the uncertain hands of the City Engineer and the acting Town Clerk. Having said that, however, the government should take on board that what Messrs Renwick and De Oca Morales had to say about a detailed architectural investigation being embarked on so that a clear idea can be obtained about what has to be done, and in what sequence.

As for an oversight body, the composition of this could perhaps be placed in the hands of the Chairman and Board of the National Trust, which could act as a good officer between the government and the city authorities and identify those with the requisite skills who will be needed to sit on it and oversee the work – if necessary bringing experts from abroad. The National Trust, of course, comes under the Ministry of Culture and not the Ministry of Local Government, but in this instance, the latter ministry does not need much of an input, although it does need to be kept informed. After all, this is about a heritage building of national importance, not who rules at City Hall.

It has to be understood that $200 million most likely will only cover emergency work; the cost of full restoration, one imagines, is not the kind of sum the government would be willing to include in the budget – or the opposition might be disposed to approve, given that they have never had anything to say on heritage matters, let alone the state of City Hall. Whatever the final cost, one hopes that the government has committed to full rehabilitation, and not just patchwork efforts to prevent the building from crumbling around Ms Sooba’s ears in the shorter term. As such they may have to approach international funding agencies, and look at other ways of raising money.

As said above, in this instance the “intervention” must be treated with some urgency. Dr Luncheon himself may remember the case of the Chess Hall in Main Street, which had originally been given to the Guyana Chess Association by President Forbes Burnham, and had already fallen into disrepair even before the PPP/C came to office in 1992. It was a colonial-style building, and during Dr Jagan’s period as President, it was finally decided to undertake some restoration work on it. Before a cent could be expended on that laudable project, however, the citizens of Georgetown woke up one morning to find that the building was lying on the lot in the form of an unrecognizable heap of rubble.

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