Plan envisions Hagåtña as vibrant center

HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — Over the last two decades, there have been dreams of resurrecting the island’s capital in Hagåtña.

Joe Quinata, chief program officer at the Guam Preservation Trust, said work has started and hopefully the governor’s palace — sometimes referred to as palacio or palasyu — will be next. Quinata said much like the effort across the island to restore buildings of cultural and historic significance, the restoration of Hagåtña as the seat of the government has been happening in phases, which is necessary considering the breadth and cost of such an endeavor.

Lasia Casil, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s appointee to the Hagåtña Restoration and Redevelopment Authority, also said the work will have to be done in phases. The heart of the restoration project includes the palacio and other buildings that would accommodate about 1,500 government employees as well as areas for community events and cultural attractions. That comes at an estimated $20 million price tag. Currently, there is about $5 million from the hotel occupancy tax bond — and the administration is eyeing that to build the palacio.

The Hagåtña Master Plan, which was approved by the HRRA board last year, is under review by the island’s new administration under Leon Guerrero. Casil emphasized that, by law, the governor has to approve the plan, which then has to be approved by the Legislature.

That’s a crucial step in moving forward with a plan that envisions a capital city that reflects the island’s history and culture, presented in a manner that embraces a modern government, a bustling economic hub and new technology, said Joseph Cameron, who worked with HRRA through two administrations.

Felix Camacho, when he was governor, said revitalizing Hagåtña would accomplish three things. First, it would restore dignity to the historic capital city, which is a vital cultural center that showcases Guam’s history and heritage. It would allow small businesses to have a greater share in the tourist retail market. Lastly, it would address a constant concern of visitors regarding the lack of cultural attractions unique to Guam.

The Camacho administration created the 2005 Hagåtña Master Plan. Cameron said he joined the effort in 2009.

“I was asked to assist with the master plan,” he said. “And there was a lot of work to do, but we made very good progress.”

The effort to finalize the master plan was completed in the Calvo administration, Cameron stated.

Yet even as the master plan was being finalized, other work was being accomplished. The Guam Economic Development Authority worked closely with the Department of Chamorro Affairs, HRRA, and Guam Preservation Trust to build the Senator Antonio M. Palomo Guam Museum & Educational Facility.

Cameron said in some ways the museum became “the impetus to growing Hagåtña as a historic district of Hagåtña.”

Today, the museum hosts various activities and draws students on educational field trips, local families and tourists. Skinner Plaza, where the museum sits, also has become a center of activity with food trucks, music and community gatherings.

The master plan was approved by the HRRA board last year. Gov. Leon Guerrero wants to move forward with revitalization efforts.

Cameron noted that former Gov. Calvo and Gov. Leon Guerrero’s strong support of this long-term project is “very appropriate considering that two of the board of commissioners for Hagåtna restoration were none other than Paul M. Calvo and Jesus Leon Guerrero.” 

Flood zone

DCA, HRRA would have to work with the Department of Public Works, Guam Legislature, Army Corps of Engineers and other local and federal partners to complete the master plan.

The master plan, Cameron said, provides a guide that takes into consideration the areas of Hagåtña that can, and the manner in which it should be, restored. The master plan also addresses issues such as flooding and parking.

Matrix Design Group, the company that helped design the plan, held various community workshops to get the community’s input. One of those concerns was flooding, as well as parking.

The plan states:

“More than half of the participants stated that the existing flood control systems in Hagåtña were insufficient. Flooding caused by storm surges, flash floods, and flooding of the Hagåtña River often impacts necessary daily operations and critical infrastructure within the downtown area. Furthermore, flooding has impacted development projects and construction within Hagåtña to the extent that millions of dollars of additional funding may be required to correct and/or mitigate these impacts.”

Parking also was an issue residents raised during workshops:

“A large number of stakeholder’s felt that Hagåtña lacked the necessary parking for all leisure/recreation/cultural opportunities. ... One of the main concerns with public parking is that stakeholders and residents want it to remain free.”

Cameron said a riverwalk was designed to address the flooding. Parking garages also were included in the plan — the question of whether parking would be free needs to be answered by the current administration and Legislature. 

Historic Hagåtña

Click to enlarge
The Chocolate House is one of the attractions at the Plaza de España in Hagatña.  Photo by David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

Between 1899 and 1941, Hagåtña became the seat of the American naval government, Guampedia states. Entertainment was centered around the Plaza de España, the old Spanish seat of government in the center of the village. Scenes of people chatting after church or dancing to music being played around the plaza were interrupted by the war.

While Hagåtña was slowly rebuilt it was only recently that we’ve started to see what it once was and what it again could be, Quinata said.

The Trust is an ex-officio member of HRRA, providing technical assistance. The Trust’s mandated to preserve and protect the historic sites around the capital city.

Quinata said the Hagåtña cathedral was the first large project that the Trust participated in. That effort was followed with the restoration of the Lujan House, which now serves as a historic site that tourists can visit while walking along the historic Hagåtña Heritage Walking Trail.

The restoration of the Plaza de España and Congressional Building also were projects completed in partnership with the Calvo administration.

The Trust completed the feasibility study for the Plaza de España and the palacio. HRRA board approved the study and incorporated it into the master plan in 2017. The feasibility study is focused on the palacio and the surrounding Plaza de España. It takes into account possible potential government buildings.

“The palacio is a reconstruction of the old governor’s palace,” Quinata said, noting there have been different discussions over the years on how it would be used.

At one point, it would have been the governor’s office. More recently, the Guam Visitors Bureau had suggested a space for cultural displays that could be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Another idea was to create a conference-like area that could be used to receive national and international dignitaries, or host community events, such as weddings.

He said just a few months ago, there was a fundraising event at the Plaza de España to benefit the homeless. The event reflected the CHamoru spirit of community and artist renderings and photos of the palacio as it evolved through the island’s different eras left people “imagining what life could have been like before the war.”

“The experience was exquisite, people loved it,” he said. “It’s those types of activities that we encourage so that people can appreciate Hagåtña for it represents in our culture but also what it offers in terms of governance and economic prosperity for our island.”