San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaders Seek to Bring New Life To San José’s Abandoned Core

(Part two in a two-part series on improving and repopulating San José.)AS developers’ eyes and investors’ pocketbooks remain fixated on urban sprawl east, west, north and south of San José, government officials in the capital’s center are starting to wave their arms to get the attention of these financiers, who they hope will return to downtown after a nearly 30-year hiatus.The process of attracting residential and commercial development to the center of San José has only just begun, but it has begun in earnest. On Wednesday, officials from six government institutions signed letters of intent, agreeing to complete various projects ranging from constructing pedestrian boulevards to improving the city’s sewage system, all of which will make San José more attractive to potential developers.These projects, and others in the works, will improve San José on their own, but the larger idea is to create a foundation on which the private sector can build, turning San José into a modern city that will attract new residents and increase population density, explained Eduardo Brenes, who heads the National Urban Development Plan.In addition, a new Urban Master Plan for the Canton of San José went into effect last week. It simplifies building regulations throughout the greater metropolitan area and provides incentives for development in the 350 blocks that make up downtown San José.THE metropolitan area can no longer continue expanding outward, according to planners. Not only does sprawl threaten water sources and recreational spaces, but also the government cannot afford to build the roads, sewage systems, phone lines and schools to support ever-expanding growth, Brenes said.Furthermore, long commutes between jobs in the city center and homes on the outskirts are mentally and economically draining for drivers.“Cities are in essence ecological, because it is better to have areas where you concentrate people than to spread them out everywhere,” agreed Alvaro Rojas, rector of the University of Design, east of San José, which annually holds international conferences on sustainable city planning.SAN José is a natural candidate for increased density because it already has the best infrastructure in the country, although it needs serious upgrades, planners say.Some of these infrastructure improvements will come in the next few years with the agreements signed Wednesday, under a plan called San José Possible, which focuses on 53 blocks in the center of downtown (TT, Aug. 5). But that is just the beginning.Bruno Stagno, architect with the Tropical Architecture Institute, which designed the San José Possible plan, explained that if the project is successful in the selected 53 blocks, it could be replicated throughout the city.The National Power and Light Company (CNFL) has already completed one aspect of the plan for the entire 350 blocks of downtown – placing electrical lines underground at a cost of $52 million. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the state-owned telecommunicationsmonopoly, will soon follow with underground fiber optics, allowing electricity posts to be removed, CNFL general manager Marco Cordero said.Underground electrical lines are necessity to support more and taller buildings in the downtown area, because their capacity is greater.According to Brenes, the other top priorities to making development possible in San José are improving transit systems and increasing capacity of sewage lines and treatment.BRENES is leading a European Union funded project called Regional and Urban Planning for the Greater Metropolitan Area (PRU-GAM), which aims to create long term visions and well-defined plans for the metropolitan area as a system – in water, transportation and population densification – as well as for the individual municipalities that make up the area.According to Brenes, issues of population growth and infrastructure should be dealt with region-wide.For example, regarding traffic, decreasing the number of cars in the city to make it more pedestrian-friendly – one of the primary goals of San José Possible – must be achieved on a regional level. More coordination is needed between the 250 bus lines that arrive in San José daily.Surrounding cities should have feeder buses that bring passengers to a central line, either bus or train, in and out of San José, rather than entering the city themselves, according to Brenes.He said a $150-$200 million investment in the public transport system could vastly improve traffic congestion and pollution. This would include purchasing a new fleet of buses, defining bus-only lanes, building bus terminals and new stops, strengthening streets for bus traffic and coordinating traffic lights.Park-and-ride lots would also need to be built to complement the system. Drivers would park their cars in cheaper lots outside the city and take the bus, rather than driving into the city, where more expensive underground lots would create financial incentive to take the bus. Buses need to be clean, safe and punctual, added Rojas.“We need democratic urban transportation. You get on a bus in New York, Berlin… and there are all (economic) classes. Here, it is mostly poor people who use the bus,” he said.In addition, the metropolitan area is in desperate need of highway infrastructure that goes around the city, not through it, according to Brenes.PRU-GAM is funded by 11 million euros from the European Union, matched by a 7.5 million euro commitment from the Costa Rican government. Of the E.U. funds, 35% is to be used on “demonstrative projects” in the greater metropolitan area to show the vision of the program, such as bus terminals or parks. Yesterday the daily La Nación reported this 35% is in jeopardy if the state does not define soon what demonstrative projects will be built.WHILE the demonstrative projects are lagging, the remaining PRO-GAM projects are moving forward, Brenes said. In addition to creating development plans for the area, an education program in San José schools will teach respect for the urban environment, including not littering.A cultural change is necessary to bring Costa Ricans back to San José, which they fled in the 1980s as the city became less clean and safe, leaving 30% of buildings abandoned, Brenes explained.Costa Ricans are accustomed to living in houses with yards, and many fear living in tall buildings because of earthquakes.“People need to support the solutions being proposed. They are meaningless if people don’t,” Brenes said.The five-story-and-up condominiums built in recent years in Escazú, west of San José, are proof these tendencies are changing, Rojas said.Federico Escobar, of Hogares de Costa Rica, a 35-year-old development and construction firm, said young people are ready to switch to urban living.“They understand they cannot buy a large piece of property like their parents, and they see that living in the city has a lot of benefits, with restaurants, bars, theaters,” said Escobar, 26.Hogares de Costa Rica is not yet considering any projects downtown. However, the San José neighborhoods of La Sabana and Barrio Amón have drawn the interest of developers, according to Vladmir Klotchkov, director of urbanism for the Municipality of San José.But complicating the possibility of development is the fact that land is, and has been, very expensive in San José.THE Municipality of San José would like to reduce or eliminate property taxes in central San José as an incentive for potential developers, but only the Legislative Assembly can approve tax changes, Klotchkov said.The municipality has been able to reduce the fees for construction permits from 1% of the value of construction to 0.1% for projects built in the four districts of central San José. This change was made in the new Urban Master Plan for the Canton of San José, which went into effect last week.“Also, where the private sector wants to build condominiums (in central San José), we are going to accompany them with improved infrastructure,” Klotchkov said. Under the new master plan, building norms have also been liberalized – height limits, and limits on the percentage of a plot of land a building can cover, have been eliminated.Instead, the size of development allowed on a lot is based on the location and size of the lot on a sliding scale – the larger the lot, the greater development allowed.The changes will not affect historic buildings declared national patrimony, which face much stricter restrictions.Officials are also trying to facilitate development and improve city planning by systematizing the permit process for the 14 municipalities that make up the greater metropolitan area, making it uniform. They also hope to allow developers to submit digital plans to government institutions when they are soliciting permits, instead of the costly physical plans they must currently submit.“These are small and technical changes, but we hope they will help,” Klotchkov said.For Brenes, every step counts.“This isn’t a vision for two or three years. The best cities in the world today have been in a revision process for 40 years,” he said. “The important thing is to have the concepts and plan very clear. Everything else comes step by step.”

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