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Costs Surge as Donoe Estates Housing Project Resumes with New Contractor

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Local officials inaugurated the Tutu High Rise and Donoe public housing project on January 11, 2021, marking the commencement of the project’s first phase.

The Donoe Estates public housing project, which had been suspended due to various complications, is set to resume under the stewardship of a new contractor, as reported by the Consortium. Originally breaking ground in January 2021 with an anticipated budget of $58 million for the 84-unit development, the project encountered significant setbacks that led to a halt in progress.

During a recent Public Finance Authority Board meeting, questions regarding the project’s status were raised. Adrienne Williams-Octalien, Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, reported a request for an additional $35 million. Subsequent discussions revealed that initial developers Pennrose and GEC exited the project last September after facing prolonged challenges, including delays in material procurement and necessary environmental remediation efforts, which escalated costs to $65.9 million.

Williams-Octalien hesitated to specify the current progress of the development but confirmed the selection of J. Benton Construction as the new contractor. This contractor has proposed an additional $47 million to complete the project, potentially doubling the original budget to $105 million. This proposal is currently under review to confirm the legitimacy of the escalated costs.

The director clarified that the extra funding would be sourced from the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), allocated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some funds initially earmarked for other uninitiated projects may be redirected to ensure sufficient capital for the Donoe Estates project’s continuation.

Despite an interruption that will undoubtedly extend the project’s timeline, Williams-Octalien expressed optimism about its completion. She mentioned that the project’s financing strategy includes utilizing remaining funds from the initial budget in conjunction with the anticipated new funding.

The bond issued for the initial contractors remains unpaid, as the bond company did not accept the Housing Authority’s claims of contractor fault, leading to an amicable contract termination. Williams-Octalien emphasized the importance of validating the new contractor’s cost estimates to expedite the project’s resumption.

Attempts to contact the VI Housing Authority for further comments were unsuccessful.

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VIHFA Submits Finalized Amendment to Mitigation Action Plan for HUD Review

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The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) has officially submitted its finalized Second Substantial Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for review. This amendment, shaped by extensive community feedback from recent public meetings and online forums, is expected to receive a response from HUD by July 2024.

“We are deeply grateful to the Virgin Islands community for their active participation in shaping this plan,” said Dayna Clendinen, VIHFA Chief Disaster Recovery Officer. “By prioritizing and investing in critical infrastructure projects, workforce development, small business growth, and economic stabilization initiatives, we can build a more resilient Virgin Islands. This comprehensive approach strengthens our communities, equips them to withstand future storms, reduces environmental impact, and fosters a thriving future for everyone.”

Key Highlights of the Second Substantial Amendment

Increased Funding for Infrastructure: The amendment increases funding for Infrastructure and Public Facilities from $363 million to $423 million. This additional support will finance the second phase of the Veterans Drive Improvement Project, which includes stormwater improvements, minimized erosion and pollution, and enhanced pedestrian mobility and safety.

Enhanced Economic Resilience Programs: Two new programs have been introduced to bolster economic resilience and revitalization:

  • Entrepreneurship Resilience and Innovation Program: Funded at $8 million, this program offers additional support for small businesses.
  • Workforce Development Mitigation Program: Also funded at $8 million, this program focuses on critical local training initiatives.

For more details, the finalized Second Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan can be viewed on the VIHFA website.

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Lawmakers Approve Leases for Sejah Farm and Rumina Construction, Bolstering Local Economic Growth

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The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance has approved two lease agreements of government-owned lands to support a local farm and a construction company, fostering economic development in the Virgin Islands. The bills now await approval from the 35th Legislature and Governor Albert Bryan.

Sejah Farm Lease

Bill No. 35-0261 authorizes a lease between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Yvette and Dale Brown, owners of Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. The 15-acre property, located at Plot No. 9-P Estate VICORP Lands, Prince Quarter, St. Croix, will be used for farming and related activities.

Senator Marvin Blyden, presenting the bill, emphasized the importance of the twenty-year lease for the farm’s ongoing livestock and crop production. Sejah Farm operates an agricultural learning center, teaching animal husbandry, soil improvement, and value-added production. The annual rent for the property is set at $225.69.

Mrs. Brown outlined the farm’s use of the property, which includes livestock grazing, organic crop production, and poultry, meat, and egg production. The farm supplies fresh meat and vegetables to local and overseas markets, focusing on bolstering the territory’s agricultural sector.

Rumina Construction Lease

Bill No. 35-0255 details a multi-year lease agreement with Rumina Construction, LLC, for land at Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas. The lease allows the company to use the land for an equipment and material storage depot yard, construction company office, and related purposes. Senator Blyden noted that the lease supports a local business that provides essential services to the community.

Rumina Construction, involved in several hurricane recovery projects, employs twelve Virgin Islanders. Franklin Victor, the company’s owner, reported significant investments in property improvements, totaling nearly $100,000 since the original lease.

The bills will proceed to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

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Debate on Sidewalk Bar Proposal Ignites at Historical Preservation Meeting

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The St. Thomas-St. John Historical Preservation Society convened on a recent Tuesday to deliberate on several matters, including a contentious proposal for a new sidewalk bar at Meada’s Plaza in Cruz Bay. The plan, which calls for tearing down an existing concrete slab and erecting new structures with subtle lighting and movable seating, sparked a lively debate over aesthetics, public parking, and the complexities of navigating the permitting maze within historic districts.

Sean Krigger, the director of the State Historical Preservation Office, voiced his reservations about the design elements of the proposed bar, particularly the herringbone pattern intended for the perimeter wall. He suggested that the design might clash with the existing architectural style of Cruz Bay, which leans towards a more modern aesthetic. “The flooring might handle the design, but on a wall, it becomes too conspicuous,” Krigger explained. He proposed exploring the use of stone, which is prevalent in the district’s construction.

During the discussions, the perennial issue of parking resurfaced, mirroring concerns raised at a similar meeting of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee. Enrique Rodriguez, a committee member, pointed out that the proposed site for the sidewalk bar had been originally designated for parking. The local zoning laws currently do not allow the Historical Preservation Committee (HPC) to waive these parking requirements, a point Krigger emphasized. However, Kurt Marsh, another member, noted that the developers possessed a nearby parking lot that might serve as an alternative parking space, pending approval from planning authorities.

The committee also considered whether to approve the project conditionally, pending the acquisition of all necessary permits. Krigger strongly opposed this, stating, “We should not approve projects that do not fully comply with zoning and building laws.” This sentiment underscored the committee’s commitment to upholding legal standards rigorously, contrasting with the more flexible approaches sometimes observed on other islands.

Architect Clarence Brown expressed frustration with the convoluted permitting process, recounting instances of being shuffled between departments without clear guidance. “It’s baffling that every agency points to another, and yet we’re expected to have all approvals in place before moving forward,” Brown stated.

Ultimately, despite Krigger’s objections, Marsh proposed granting conditional approval, dependent on confirmation of the alternative parking arrangements and necessary adjustments to the design plans. The committee unanimously agreed, marking a significant step forward for the proposed project at 6B Vester Gade in Cruz Bay, St. John, despite the noted challenges and procedural hurdles.

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