In December 2018, the Urban Land Institute convened a panel in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico to advise the community on enhancing recovery efforts after the catastrophic and deadly 2017 Hurricane Maria, and provided recommendations to aid short-term and long term economic growth and resilient development.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria—the deadliest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 100 years—slammed into the island’s coast with winds that reached 155 miles per hour (250 kmph). This occurred just a few short weeks after Hurricane Irma had already hit the island with devastating effects.
Hurricane Maria left all 3.2 million residents on the island without electricity, and most without water and communications. “The whole island was affected in ways that nowadays is difficult to comprehend—no power, no banking, no communications, no food, no access, no diesel. . . . It was as if you went to sleep one night in 2017 and woke up back in time in the late 19th century,” says architect Ricardo Alvarez-Diaz, the local district council chair and a ULI governor. “The physical damage is devastating, but the over 3,000 people that lost their lives is unbearable.”
These storms rounded out a particularly hyperactive and catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, affecting Florida and Texas in addition to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and registering as one of the costliest tropical hurricane seasons on record.
In addition to being physically vulnerable to hurricanes and other major acts of nature, Puerto Rico is in economic decline and in a long-term recession that began in 2006. Furthermore, the commonwealth government has about $70 billion in outstanding debt and entered Chapter 3 bankruptcy proceedings in spring 2017.
To contribute to the commonwealth’s recovery effort, ULI’s Advisory Services program engaged with ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean and the Puerto Rico Builders Association to select a municipality to receive technical assistance focusing on enhancing resilience and strengthening the economy, as well as to act as a model for the implementation of best practices. The panel was a philanthropic effort, funded by the Kresge Foundation and ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean, and supported by Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon Architecture and Interior Design. The partnership among Alvarez-Diaz’s firm, the Puerto Rico Builders Association, and ULI selected Toa Baja, a municipality of more than 80,000 residents located just west of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, to be the focus of the panel.
The panel laid out strategies to strengthen economic development initiatives, including immediately actionable methods to potentially secure Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They recommended that Toa Baja work to position itself to receive funds by prioritizing ready-to-go projects and establishing strategic partnerships among the community and the local and federal governments. Through these partnerships, the municipality will be able to build credibility to position itself to receive earmarked funds available to address redevelopment and disaster recovery. By demonstrating a readiness to deliver projects through thoughtful and methodological approaches, Toa Baja can kick-start an effective strategy for redevelopment.
The panel also proposed targeting development zones that are at higher elevations and suggested incentives to encourage the delivery of mixed-use projects in those areas. The municipality of Toa Baja should prepare short-, medium-, and long-term plans that will create opportunities to support catalytic development projects located in those zones. Supporting those developments can help Toa Baja respond to its critical housing demand while positioning the municipality for sustainable economic growth.