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Stop Savannah construction


A DESCENDANT of the Peschiers, original owners of the lands on which the Queen’s Park Savannah is located, is warning that Government’s plan to construct a $700 million cultural centre on the site violates an 1817 purchase agreement made between his family and the city officials. Retired veterinarian Dr Steve Bennett told Sunday Newsday he is strongly opposed to the plan since the original agreement for the lands stipulated that no permanent structures should be erected there. “If they go ahead with this plan, it will just open the flood gates and we will lose this open space - the lungs of Port-of-Spain,” he said.

Dr Bennett, whose parents and grandparents are buried in the Peschier family plot located in the middle of the Savannah, said his ancestors sold the lands on which two former sugar estates were located to the then Cabildo. The purchase was made, in a bid to add more space to the rapidly developing city of Port-of-Spain, on the advice of Sir Ralph Woodford, this country’s first civil governor. Historical records show that two parcels of land of approximately 232 acres which formed the Paradise Estate were purchased for 6,000 pounds. The deed of conveyance No 1219 was executed on August 18, 1817. According to the agreement, the heirs of Madame Celeste Rose Peschier reserved “a piece of ground in which the ancestors of the said family Peschier are interred”. The family agreed for that area to be enclosed and kept in order at their expense.

“I am positive,” Dr Bennett declared, “that the paving of a section of the Savannah which took place a few years ago and this plan to construct a cultural centre are not permissible on those lands. “In my younger days I remember there were only two stands there for spectators at horse racing. One of them was the Bournes Stand. It was like bleachers and would be put up just before the races, then pulled down right after. “Now they are talking about putting up all kinds of elaborate structures there. A stop should be put to this plan. If we don’t do anything, next thing they will be putting up all kinds of high-rise apartments and things like that and we will lose our Savannah. “London has Hyde Park. New York has Central Park. Here in Trinidad and Tobago we have our Queen’s Park Savannah — they should leave it alone!”

Bennett isn’t the only one raising objections to the Savannah project. Environmentalist Eden Shand, a former National Alliance for Reconstruc-tion (NAR)Government Minister, wants the Env-ironmental Management Authority (EMA) to withdraw the certificate of environmental clearance (CEC) which allows construction work to begin at the site. Shand is also calling for a public consultation to be held before work begins on the project. He said: “I am appalled that the EMA has so easily granted a CEC to such a major development without requiring the proponent to conduct an EIA (environmental impact assessment). “An EIA would have forced the proponent to be mindful, not only about physical and biological impacts, but also the more important socio-cultural impacts.”

Shand said he is concerned that permission has been so easily granted for a development that “so drastically changes the character of one of our precious public spaces”. Earlier this month, Culture Minister Joan Yuille-Williams unveiled plans for construction of a $700 million Carnival City and Cultural Complex at the Queen’s Park Savannah on the site now occupied by the Grand and North Stands. In making the announcement at a post-Cabinet media briefing on March 2, Yuille-Williams said construction will begin as soon as the National Carnival Commission (NCC) moves out of its current location at the Savannah. “I am hoping that is done by the end of March,” she said.

Planned for the site is a below the ground level facility, with only the entrance and exits visible from the streets, Yuille-Williams revealed. It will have a seating capacity for up to 18,000 persons and will house a museum, offices, training rooms, studios, Carnival offices, event management rooms, security booths and parking spaces for 3,500 vehicles. A ten-tiered retractable roof will provide for all weather conditions to protect patrons, the Minister said. Yuille-Williams was careful to point out that environmental issues related to the project had been addressed and that the architects had travelled around the world to get ideas before doing the designs. Construction will be done by the state-owned Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott) and will be carried out on a 24/7 shift, once labour is available, so that the facility could be completed by 2008.

Maintenance and use of the Savannah has been a source of considerable controversy over the years. At the turn of the 20th century, when Port-of-Spain had expanded and developed to the extent that there was a problem of overcrowding, Governor F Napier Broome suggested that a small area of the Savannah be developed for housing, business and parking. That plan was scrapped after there was a huge public outcry. In the early 1970s there was a proposal for construction of a national sports stadium there — a plan that met with immediate opposition from a cross-section of citizens. Save Our Savannah Committee (SOS), a private watchdog citizen’s group, was formed to protest against that plan. The proposal was quickly scrapped and another site was found for the stadium.

The most recent controversy erupted in August 1999 when Carlos John, Works Minister in the United National Congress (UNC) Government of that time, paved a portion of the Savannah. In response to objections from environmentalists and others, John claimed the paving was done to facilitate the annual Independence Day Parade. The Savannah, one of the oldest and largest natural urban parks in the country, gives a distinctive character to TT’s capital and has long been a centre of cultural and recreational activity. It is also one of the largest water catchment areas in Port-of-Spain, with pump houses operated by the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) drawing water from a gravel aquifer — an underground basin in which water collects.

Environmentalists have long expressed concern that unregulated activity in the Savannah could cause surface pollutants to find their way into that very important water supply. In addition, an existing flooding problem caused by improper drainage and compacting of the topsoil, could be aggravated if there is activity in the area which further reduces the absorbency of the topsoil. If that happens, the increased flooding will affect Marli Street and the Newtown area. There is no single authority responsible for the Savannah. Agencies with a presence or responsibility for those lands include the Ministry of Works, the PoS City Corporation, the Horticultural Services Division, the Ministry of Sports, WASA, the NCC, the Town and Country Planning Division and the Ministry of Culture. Agencies to be directly involved in the proposed cultural centre include Udecott, the NCC and the Ministry of Culture.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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