The idea of skyscrapers on Seven Mile Beach will be one of the options up for discussion as the Cayman Islands attempts to formulate a Development Plan for the future of the country.
Premier Alden McLaughlin called for a national debate on changing building height restrictions in a speech at the Cayman Economic Outlook conference earlier this month. His comments came as the Dart group revealed its ambition to build a multi-storey tower in Grand Cayman that would stand comparison to some of the world’s most iconic buildings.
The Cayman Compass spoke to developers, planners, and sustainability and environmental groups about the concept. While some wholeheartedly support the idea of building higher, others fear it could lead to unsustainable growth in the island’s already busy tourism sector.
Some developers believe taller buildings represent a compromise between development and the environment, allowing for more building in the lucrative tourism zone without eating up too much oceanfront land. Others argue that skyscrapers would be a better fit for Cayman’s ailing capital city, injecting new impetus to long-discussed plans for a revitalisation of George Town.
The public will get to have its say on the issue as the Planning Department formulates a new planning and zoning strategy for the island in the coming months.
Richard Mileham, part of the department’s policy and development unit that has worked on the plan, said potentially increasing building heights was one of the issues that would be up for discussion.
The next stage in that process, expected to take place later this year, is broad public consultation over a specific area plan for the Seven Mile Beach tourism corridor.
“Building heights will be part of the discussion, in the context of the short- and long-range future of the area and its continued attractiveness to visitors and residents,” he said.
The area plan will also look at land use, transportation needs and infrastructure and environment concerns as it charts a course for the future growth of the island. He said the public would have a big say in how that happens.
Jackie Doak, president of Dart Real Estate, believes flexibility on building heights in certain zones will become necessary given the scarcity, value and demand for land along Seven Mile Beach.
She said, “Removing the current height restrictions creates opportunity for further economic growth with buildings that have a reduced footprint and increased setbacks.”
Doak added that Dart would like to see a bold approach, rather than an incremental increase in building heights.
“The proposed iconic building at Camana Bay would become a tourism attraction in its own right, increasing awareness and visitation to the destination. The hospitality component would be a powerful economic driver for the community, providing employment and generating direct government revenue through the Tourism Accommodation Tax for years to come.”
Concern over impact on Cayman and its people
Others caution that growth must be managed to avoid negative impacts for Cayman’s people and its environment. Linda Clark, speaking on behalf of Sustainable Cayman, said it was encouraging to see progress on a national planning framework that includes public feedback. She expects debate over increased building heights to dominate the discussion in the forthcoming debate over an area plan for Seven Mile Beach.
“On an island of only 76 square miles, we must remember that public areas, such as the beaches, are shared by residents and visitors alike,” she said.
“Increasing building heights to accommodate an increased head count in Cayman has many implications which should be considered in line with the carrying capacity of our islands.
“A balance must be met between the social, economic and natural environments, to the equal benefit of current and future generations.”
She said the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, which include careful management of natural resources and a reduction of inequality, should be factored into any long-term plan. Sustainable Cayman also believes the island’s government should look toward the Blue Economy, an emerging concept that encourages better stewardship of the ocean’s resources, as part of its planning.
Hopes for George Town
Dart’s proposal is not the first time the concept of higher buildings has been proposed in Grand Cayman.
James Whittaker, head of the Cayman Renewable Energy Association and owner of Greentech Solar, developed outline designs for a 30-storey building in George Town as a concept to kick-start a national conversation on the revitalisation of George Town.
Whittaker believes taller buildings are a legitimate option for the Cayman Islands, and says he has no problem with Dart and the government exploring plans for an iconic building on Seven Mile Beach. But he believes building higher in George Town would be more politically palatable to most Cayman Islands residents and would also inject momentum into efforts to reinvigorate the capital.
“I think vertical building is more beneficial to the country downtown and is an easier political sell,” he said.
“If government wants it as the crown jewel of a downtown redevelopment, then, of course, there are plenty of options and partnerships that could facilitate it.”
His proposal involved government buying the Scotiabank building and partnering with the private sector to build two sail-shaped towers as the centrepiece of a revived George Town.
“I also think it should be iconic. That helps with the ‘sell’ and would make it something Caymanians can take pride in. A tribute to our maritime heritage was our idea, and I still think that makes the most sense,” said Whittaker, who came up with the concept through his NEXT Design & Development company.
He believes there are positives to building higher, but cautions that the government and Dart’s plan for Camana Bay will cause ripples in the community.
“It is an almost impossible sell politically if it’s at Camana Bay, because most local people will think that allowing the precedent provides no benefits to the average person. That may not be the reality, but that will be the perspective. I think it’s a much easier sell downtown, and that the people benefitting will be locals in large part.”
Demand for high-end property
Developer Dale Crighton agrees that downtown is the best location for this type of development.
“Instead of looking to drastically increase heights along Seven Mile Beach, the government should look to bring other areas back into play,” he said.
“George Town commercial [real estate] is an area which needs a shot in the arm. Why not increase the heights there to create renewed demand and interest in this dying sector?”
He said allowing skyscrapers on Seven Mile Beach would likely lead to a raft of new developments that the market could not sustain.
“If we suddenly doubled the height along Seven Mile Beach, then you would have 10 or 15 new redevelopments on the books, all with 150-200 units,” he said. “Such a drastic increase in height would look like a gold mine for developers. However, how would we absorb 1,500 new units? We wouldn’t.”
Realtor Kim Lund believes there is pent-up demand for high-end property on Seven Mile Beach that could be served by increasing building heights.
“I think the die is already cast for Seven Mile Beach, in terms of already being committed to more development and, over time, higher buildings,” he said.
“This area alone is a huge contributor to the economy and it will be hard to slow that engine down.”
He believes any increase in building heights should be limited to Seven Mile Beach and George Town in order to leave the rest of the island pristine. He acknowledged there were challenges in balancing increased development with infrastructure and access to the beach and other amenities for locals. But he said government was seeking to address these concerns by purchasing beach land, including the recent acquisition of Smith Cove.
James Whittaker, the writer of this article, and James Whittaker, the owner of Greentech Solar, are not related.