The Next Great Caribbean Waterfront Downtown Is in St Thomas
By Alexander Britell and Guy Britton
ST THOMAS — It’s always been one of the most stunning drives in the Caribbean: the waterfront route around the centuries-old downtown of Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
One one side, there’s the heart of historic Charlotte Amalie, anchored by the shopping on Main Street; on the other, the green-hilled view toward Hassel Island and Water Island.
And now, thanks to a significant new revitalization project, Charlotte Amalie is getting a major new look — and is poised to become what could be the next great waterfront downtown in the Caribbean.
The plan began with historic Main Street, where the government injected about $16 million into remaking the street with Eurocobble stone and hand-laid stone sidewalks; that was along with new street signage; replacing water and sewer lines; and new telecom and electrical underground. That project had its ribbon cutting in April.
Now, the USVI’s Department of Public is in the midst of a nearly four-year phase one that will total $46 million, remaking a quarter mile of road along the water: adding two new traffic lanes, adding a new seawall; a landscaped median; improved storm drainage; and, most notably, construction of a new waterfront promenade, ranging from five to 25 feet in some places.
The second phase is more ambitious, says Derek A. Gabriel, Commissioner of the US Virgin Islands Department of Public Works.
That will extend the project all the way around the USVI Legislature; it will add a new water feature and make the historic King’s Landing Wharf its centerpiece.
There will also be an even bigger promenade, ranging in some places to 70 feet, and the opportunity for outdoor dining across from the waterfront.
“As much as we need want to keep the nature of the harbor, it still needs a facelift.” Gabriel tells Caribbean Journal Invest. “And when you add phase one and phase two and the Main Street project, now you’re seeing that facelift while still paying homage to our history and culture.”
The biggest objective, Gabriel says, is to create more outdoor space and make the area more visually appealing. This second phase, which would go somewhere north of $100 million, is hoped to be put out to bid by the first quarter of next year.
The plan is to take a historic treasure of the US Virgin Islands and give it its place among the great waterfront promenades around the world.
Gabriel says his team took inspiration both from European cities and “our Caribbean neighbors,” and creating an experience that would let locals and visitors stroll on the promenade, eat outdoors and watch the sunset.
The changes are starting to draw interest from investors and developers, both on Main Street and across the promenade.
The sparkling new Main Street is already seeing new higher end jewel retail coming in, along with high-end electronics moving downtown.
Several parties have already expressed interest in doing a bed and breakfast or a more conventional style hotel like The Fred in St Croix’s Frederiksted.
“The idea would be something that would not only offer downtown living, but valet parking, rooftop dining and street-level dining,” Gabriel says.
And the landmark International Plaza building, for example, is currently on the market (it’s listed with Seaglass), and is drawing serious interest from hotel developers, too, Gabriel says.
“Everybody keen on it has been looking to buy it as a hotel,” he says.
It all adds up to one of the most ambitious downtown revitalization projects in the Caribbean in recent memory — and one that could turn Charlotte Amalie into an investment hotbed in the short and medium term.
And it’s all thanks to a waterfront landscape that’s been here for centuries —but is now getting its place in the sun.
“Very few residents actually pull into the harbor from the water side.” Gabriel says. “And when you come in you see one of the most beautiful downtown landscapes throughout the Caribbean. And I do see it not only evolving but also keeping that historic beauty. I see it taking its preeminent place as the downtown for the Caribbean. But I also see that as we’re adding features and changing it a little, we’ll still be able to hearken back to that rich past and future that we have.”