An ambitious plan is being drafted to revamp 53 inner-city blocks in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The two-to-three-year initiative, named “Making San José Possible” is being promoted by members of the Institute of Tropical Architecture (ITA) and already has municipal and other public entity support.

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The aim is to revitalize the downtown area, making it safer and more attractive to pedestrians and to convert abandoned or run-down buildings into apartments.

Bruno Stagno, one of the architects heading the proposal is certain that remodelling those 53 blocks, will create a “knock-on effect” for the rest of the city. Stagno explained that the idea is to get the business community interested and encourage them to back the construction of multi-use buildings that would contain offices, shops and dwellings.

This way, San José’s four central districts (Catedral, Merced, Carmen and Hospital) would be repopulated. The number of residents in these districts dropped from 69,000 in 1984 to 57,000 at today’s figures.

First Stage.

The area involved covers Avenidas 4 to 10 (south of Central Park and La Castellana) and Calles 11 to 16 (between the La Soledad church and the San Juan de Dios hospital).

Work will start on state-owned land to avoid extra expenditure because of expropriations, with projects being concessioned out to private entrepreneurs to undertake the building and post-construction management. The first changes could appear next year when city authorities begin building pedestrianized boulevards and bicycle lanes, and repairing sidewalks.

Mayor, Jimmy Araya, explained that the first stage to pedestrianize Avenida 4 has the green light, and financing is already being solicited for this project. “Afterwards, we will create boulevards from the Paseo de los Estudiantes street and Calle 3 in front of the Colegio de Señoritas,” he explained.

Sidewalks along some of streets will be widened reducing vehicle access to a single lane and ITA also has plans for three underground car parks to ease parking chaos.

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Department responsibilities.

For the “Making San José Possible” plan to work, various institutions will sign a letter of commitment with the Municipality. The Ministry of Public Works (MOPT), for example, must implement plans to establish a cross-city network for traffic to move smoothly through the city and a project is already underway to restrict vehicular access to the city center during rush-hour weekdays.

At the same time, the Costa Rica Water and Sewage Authority (AyA) must renovate its sewage and potable water network before other works commence. The National Electricity Company (CNFL), however, has already complied with its part: installing underground electric cabling.

Other proposals to reclaim the center.

  • Embellishment. The new boulevards will have sheltered seats of contemporary design and some will have access to wireless Internet connections.
  • Pick-up and drop-off points. The main cross-city streets will only allow pick-up and drop-off of goods during the night; subsidiary streets will have a more flexible schedule.
  • More sidewalks. Some streets will have wider tree-lined sidewalks with a single vehicle lane.
  • Buildings. The plan is to rescue old buildings and convert them into offices, service outlets such as banks, and supermarkets. Upper floors would be converted into apartments.
  • Access. The plan promotes the idea that people living in downtown San José will save time reaching their work places as well as having a wide variety of services and facilities such as theatres and leisure spots.
  • Security. City authorities are planning to include more police officers and to create a security alarm system with emergency help lines for business owners in the case of any crisis.
  • Handicap Access. Physically challenged people will benefit from the new ‘intelligent’ sidewalks that warn when a corner is reached.

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Sorting out the traffic chaos.

Although a total restructuring of San José’s traffic flows is key to plans for repopulating the city, it is unlikely that public buses will leave the city center any time soon. Mayor, Johnny Araya, admits, “The way public transport is organized is chaotic”.

The Municipality estimates that a million people come into the city every day and 800,000 of them come in on 2,500 buses along 171 authorized routes. Mayor Araya considers that the MOPT should take advantage of public transport concessions that expire in 2007 to finalize the program for creating a public-transport sector network.

This program would merge companies and routes to reduce the number of buses entering the city by 50%. For example, buses coming in from Aserrí and Desamparados would arrive at a single suburban terminal where passengers could transfer to reach the city.

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However, Maritza Hernández, president of the National Transport Workers’ Chamber, says buses should not be prevented from entering San José.

Arguing that cities the world over allow buses to cross cities, she comments, “With the new fuel-saving measures, it is madness that 80% of the people entering San José by bus are left on the outskirts; it also goes against the safety of those people.”

She sees the sector network project as viable as long as bus stops are improved and more exclusive bus lanes are incorporated.

Before the building can start.

For developers to be encouraged to build apartments and condominiums in the capital, construction procedures must be made easier.

Getting building permits is a nightmare. According to Costa Rica Construction Chamber data, at least 198 steps must be completed before obtaining the permit to put up a building.

Architect Stagno agrees that there are contradictory laws and regulations that must be changed for investment to appear.

Institutions must apply the Law for Procedural Simplification that reduces the steps required to obtain a building permit.

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Lawyer, Arturo Pacheco, thinks that the law regulating condominium construction should be more flexible bypassing the legal stipulation that the condos have sufficient space for children’s play areas and parking. Pacheco proposes to modify the Law to be able to build more square meters of housing on limited downtown sites with underground car parks.

Last March, San José authorities approved changes to the Urban Master Plan to promote construction of apartments in the district but for these changes to come into force, approval is still pending from the National Housing and Town Planning Institute.

Our thanks to Jairo Villegas and Albert Marín and our friends at La Nación – Costa Rica’s largest Spanish circulation newspaper for their permission to use this article…

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