San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is a Better San José Possible? -- Officials Plan Improvements for Capital

(Part one in a two-part series on improving and repopulating San José.)When government officials announced planson Wednesday to change some bus routes andrepave a handful of roads in central San José,they weren’t just announcing a couple of Band-Aid remedies to tame the raging beast that is thecapital’s traffic; they were announcing the lateststeps in a growing movement to redefine SanJosé.Long-time residents may have heard it before –San José is going to be cleaned up, crime is goingto be reduced and the skyline is going to be transformedwith multi-use buildings towering overparks and pedestrian walkways.While it may seem like the same old pipe dream, cityplanning is slowly turning the fantasy into reality.Officials from five government institutions will sign lettersof intention next week, indicating their commitmentto complete a series of projects planners and architectsagree are crucial to making San José a livable city.“San José has become a very important capital; we all recognize that it needs to be reorganized.This effort has no political color,simply the well-being of the city, the well beingof the country, the well-being of thepeople,” said Randall Quirós, Minister ofPublic Works and Transport.Under the plan – optimistically calledSan José Possible – the Municipality ofSan José will build six new pedestrianboulevards, similar to the one now foundon Avenida Central; the National Waterand Sewer Institute (AyA) will improvepotable water, sewage and drainage systems;and the Ministry of Public Worksand Transport (MOPT) will improve circulationin the center of San José. TheNational Power and Light Company(CNFL) has already done its part by placingelectrical lines underground.All of this will, in theory, create a citythat will attract not only developers tobuild condominiums, offices, stores andrestaurants – but also the people to live,work, shop and eat in them.WHILE it may seem like a baby step,engineer Ronald Flores, of MOPT’s planningdepartment, says a reorganization ofbus routes that will begin in November is“part of a greater movement to create amore modern, more competitive, morefriendly, more beautiful city.”The changes, announced Wednesday,centralize buses on Paseo Colón goingeast, Avenida 1 going west, and Avenida10, in an exclusive, reversible lane, whichchanges direction based on the time of day.The idea is to begin a process of gettingbuses and cars to use separate roads, andpushing major transportation arteries outsidethe center of downtown, leaving the heart ofthe city for pedestrians, according to Quirós.Yet, under the plan, people would never bemore than 10 blocks away from a bus stop,and usually fewer.“Bus users make up 75% of peoplewho arrive in San José, and we want tomake it comfortable for them,” Flores said.GETTING cars, buses and pedestrianson separate streets is a step toward reducingthe traffic that pollutes San José,according to Vladimir Klotchkov, Directorof Urbanism for the Municipality of SanJosé.“Have you been on Avenida Central inpeak hours? Imagine all those people withouta pedestrian boulevard. Where wouldthey go? To the sidewalks of Avenida 2 andAvenida 1, spilling over into the street,blocking cars. It is best to redistributestreets between pedestrians, private carsand public vehicles. When buses stop, carshave to stop,” Klotchkov said.“Not only that, but without a pedestrianboulevard, fewer people would come tothe city. Avenida Central is completely acommercial success,” he added.Eventually, the 53 blocks that make upthe heart of downtown – the focus of SanJosé Possible – would be free of majortraffic and full of well-lighted pedestrianwalkways.These walkways, built on Avenida 4and Calles 9, 3, 2, 8 and 14, would create“mega-blocks” for pedestrians whichwould lend themselves to housing developmentsand parks, according to the plan.WHILE the full scope of the plancould take years to achieve, Klotchkovsaid the pedestrian boulevards couldbecome a reality in the short term.The pedestrian boulevard on Avenida4, which would stretch from La SoledadPark to La Merced Park, will be funded byBanco Popular in exchange for beingallowed to place a banking kiosk on thewalkway, Klotchkov explained, just asBanco Nacional paid for Avenida Centralin exchange for a kiosk.The shorter, north-south walkways willbe funded by the municipality.San José Possible further envisionsthe pedestrian boulevards lined withbenches, trees, flower stands and, addinga touch of technology to the aesthetic,Internet kiosks, taking advantage ofplanned underground fiber optics.ALL of this is a far cry from San Joséright now, and worse, 10 years ago.The decline of San José began in the1960s, with the demolition of many olderbuildings, according to Alvaro Rojas, rectorof the University of Design, east of San José.“It was one of the bad ideas ofprogress; they thought at the time in orderto move forward you had to throw away.But now, we have realized the opposite,you must conserve,” he said.Rojas says the Central Bank building isan example of this thinking. It was built onwhat was previously the Plaza deArtillería.“They destroyed beautiful spaces toconstruct ugliness,” he said.BY the 1980s, San José began to beabandoned because it was debased, dirtyand dangerous.As in other cities around the world 40years earlier, urban flight carried people tothe suburbs. Developers took advantage ofthis opportunity, and housing and commercialdevelopment boomed in areas surroundingthe city, such as Escazú, west of San José.In 1984, 70,000 people lived in thefour districts that make up central SanJosé; in 2000, that number dropped to57,000; if improvements aren’t made, themunicipality believes the number of urbanresidents will be just above 50,000. Whilethe population grows in the rest of thecountry, particularly urban areas, centralSan José is one of the only areas without agrowing population, Flores said.Today, approximately 30% of San Josébuildings remain abandoned.WHILE five years ago, no one waspaying attention to this problem, people –namely, government leaders – are startingto realize that deserting San José is notgood for the country.San José Possible is just one plan for 53blocks. The efforts and visions for the greatermetropolitan area go much further. EduardoBrenes is heading up the National UrbanDevelopment Plan, which looks at thegreater metropolitan area as a whole with theultimate aim of repopulating San José andincreasing density in other urban areas.“We aren’t the United States in territoryto continue sprawling forever; we don’thave the money to build a spaghetti ofeight-lane highways; we must protect ourwater sources, which are really close by;and we must protect our beautiful recreationalspaces,” he said.Next: Long-term plans to repopulate SanJosé and provide incentives and interest todevelopers.

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