The Cayman capital has changed significantly over the years, both visually and structurally.
“When I came here 30 years ago George Town was just this hub down by Cardinal Avenue, Fort Street and Harbour Drive,” says architect John Doak.
“There were a few peripheral government buildings, but most of it was all housing.”
Since then George Town has expanded. Much of the housing areas have been driven out to make room for businesses and shops downtown.
“The planning law and planning generally for the growth of George Town and the future really does not exist,” says Mr. Doak, pointing out one of the most critical issues affecting the town’s development.
“It is an oxymoron; there was no planning. The Planning Department and the government deals with whatever is on the table at any given time,” he says.
Planning restrictions in Cayman in general are more concerned with building heights, density and parking spaces.
Preservation laws or historic overlays through which neighbourhoods could be preserved or the style for a neighbourhood could be regulated do not exist.
The latest development plan dates from 1977 and as a result Cayman’s capital is a town that is shaped by individual projects lined up over time.
Amidst the rapid development of George Town a few historic buildings have been preserved.
The National Museum, housed in a colonial courts building and constructed in 1833, has served many different purposes and was initially renovated in the late 1980s.
The town hall has recently undergone a renovation, during which all the columns on the building were renewed.
George Town Library has a new three–storey extension with the original library, constructed in 1939, being preserved up front.
The post office has also survived. In addition there are Elmslie Memorial United Church and many historic buildings and properties in the Bay Side area. Like in other places, land value has been the major driving force behind construction plans, leaving little place for the preservation of heritage.
Yet on the whole there is still some of old time Cayman in George Town, albeit scattered across downtown.
Heather Bodden, chair of the Grand Cayman Beautification Committee, says that the look of George Town has improved considerably compared to some years ago.
“The landscape has changed immensely as a result of the effort made by a lot of people,” she says.
Ms Bodden emphasises that, “George Town is the capital and hub and also the place where visitors form their first impressions of the Island.”
The message the Beautification Committee is taking to the citizens and visitors of George Town is therefore to take pride in the place, where they live and work, in terms of dealing with litter and the general look of the buildings, she says.
Her focus is on enhancing certain areas of George Town.
She mentions Eston Ebanks who, with the help of prison inmates, makes picket fences from recycled wood.
“They recently installed a picket fence at a property close to the Immigration Department and it is one of many efforts to keep Cayman clean and green,” she says.
Ms Bodden still sees some areas in George Town that she is concerned about, in particular individual pockets along North Church Street, which is used extensively by tourist on their way up to Seven Mile Beach.
Not all projects to spruce up George Town have always received the desired feedback.
When the area around Hog Sty Bay was painted in the 1980s, in what designers thought was a series of appropriate Caribbean colours, the response from Caymanian locals was largely critical.
“Of all the things that we have ever done, this was the part that caused the most furore,” says Mr. Doak. “A lot of people felt very strongly that this was not Cayman and that Cayman was not about bright colours.”
Ms Bodden echoes the concerns over some of the colour schemes used, saying she wants more warm pastel colours that distinguish Cayman from other Caribbean countries.
Cruise ship passengers
The layout of George Town does not reflect the number of cruise ship passengers that have to be accommodated in addition to residents living and predominantly working downtown.
The central business district, defined by Cardinal Avenue, Fort Street, Harbour Drive and Edward Street, touches on the two main arrival points for cruise ship passengers and guides them effectively around the city block of duty free stores.
However, the orientation of these streets means that cruise ship passengers are often exposed to sun and wind.
Some of the waterfront and business district building have therefore been redesigned with the large number of cruise ship passengers in mind.
“Part of the reason we put an arcade on the West Wind and the Flagship Building was to provide shade for cruise ship passengers, to make it comfortable to duty free shop,” says Mr. Doak.
“Many of the projects that we have been involved in have introduced features like that in the hope that over time as properties developed everybody would buy into the arcade idea and we eventually have a series of linked developments.”
He believes that there is a collective philosophy among the architects resident in Cayman that anything that is constructed or renovated on the waterfront will in some way have an historic, old time Cayman look about it.
While on the waterfront most buildings follow a more or less common approach, less attention was given to the next structural layer of George Town, the business district with its five storeys high bank and commercial buildings.
The combination of cruise ship passengers and a downtown business district causes a number of traffic and road safety issues.
Parking has become one of the biggest problems from a town planning point of view. Each business and retail outlet downtown has to deal with it on its own.
Some measures have been taken to alleviate the traffic problem. A new road system allows some traffic to by-pass George Town and the cargo port traffic has been shifted to the evening and night hours.
However, the bottom-line that George Town is an unfriendly place for pedestrians remains. Pedestrianisation, with its multiple benefits for the look and feel of a town as well as the environment, is something that has been talked about for years, but no genuine improvements have been made.
“It would be lovely to see areas with cobbled stones, benches and green areas that are pedestrian friendly with fewer cars, but that’s not my call,” says Ms Bodden.
Mr. Doak and his firm submitted a concept some years ago that would close one of the traffic lanes in key roads. The space gained would be used to widen sidewalks and develop green areas.
The development of George Town together with Hurricane Ivan has reduced the number of green areas downtown. This is an issue that is also addressed by the Beautification Committee.
“We are seeing more plants and trees bringing colour to the town,” says Ms Bodden, citing Hero Square with its thatch trees as one example.
Still green areas are few and far between.
The lack of amenities for residents has plagued the town for some time. The reality is that, unless they work there, there is not much for the average residents to do in George Town. Central George Town is a place for cruise ship passengers, who will have left town most days at 4pm.
Several restaurants and bars exist but these have until now been unable to create a vibrant town centre during late afternoon and evening hours.
Future planning, which will be required if a cruise ship pier was to become reality, would need to improve the experience for both tourists and residents to maintain George Town and ultimately Cayman as an attractive tourist destination. At the same time what is left of a genuine Cayman feel should be preserved.
Mr Doak is convinced that projects like Camana Bay will be inspirational to the future development of downtown George Town.
“There is an expectation level now that is higher than it used to be,” he says.
“It is not going to be a literal emulation of what they did at Camana Bay, but the bar has been set higher.”