San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Proposal Aims to Revitalize Capital

Imagine a San José with a vibrant, bustling downtown business district crisscrossed by pedestrian boulevards. Imagine a gleaming convention center that serves as concert hall, conference space, technological oasis and transportation hub. Imagine the capital’s southern neighborhoods with a fresh coat of paint, a sharp reduction in crime, and a dynamic economy, thanks to the jobs created by new hotels and restaurants in the city’s core.

At this point, any reader who’s spent enough time in San José to see urban renewal proposals surface and fail is cocking an eyebrow and heaving a weary sigh of disbelief.

However, Federico Cartín, 27, one of four urban planning students touting a highly ambitious new scheme to improve San José, brimmed with optimism last week as he presented his plan – and even seasoned onlookers within the Municipality of San José and the tourism industry say the proposal could have a bright future, if politics permit.

In the students’ vision, the existing structures of the mostly unused Pacific Train Station in southern San José would become the basis for the new convention center, which in turn would give the surrounding area new life as a business district.

“We’re realizing that we’re living in chaos, and it can’t go on that way,” Cartín, who hails from Heredia, north of San José, told his audience Jan. 11 at the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA).

Gustavo Yglesias, an experienced developer who has worked on hotels throughout the country and attended Cartín’s presentation, said Costa Rica can’t get a convention center soon enough for his taste.

“You know who has the biggest convention center in the region? Cuba!” said Yglesias, a board member of the Costa Rican Association of Tourism Professionals (ACOPROT), whose annual EXPOTUR tourism show is cramped by the approximately 700-person limit of the city’s existing convention spaces. “We can’t grow, even though we’re the most important industry in the country. We’ve got 200 stands – ridiculous.”

Asked whether an ambitious proposal like the McGill students’ has a chance of success, the energetic cofounder of massive hotel projects like the Herradura and Cariari, west of San José – which offer their own meeting space, but not enough to meet demand, Yglesias says – gave an assertive ‘yes.’

“Definitely. It does. If it doesn’t (become reality) it’s because of politics,” he said. Maybe there is reason for optimism. After all, another ambitious plan, “San José Posible,” is inching toward reality: construction on its centerpiece, a new pedestrian boulevard on Ave. 4, from La Soledad to La Merced, began Tuesday. The project, funded by the municipality and the European Union, will eventually renovate a 53-block area south of Ave. 2 and reorganize bus and car routes to make downtown more pedestrian friendly.

Rodolfo Araya, the municipal tourism chief (and no relation to Mayor Johnny Araya), said the municipality is highly focused on urban renewal.

“Our idea is to turn San José into a cultural tourism destination… so it stops being a pass-through place,” he told The Tico Times. “An important market is being lost here.”

Transforming a Train Station

The ideas Cartín and his fellow students espouse are not new ones at the municipality. Rodolfo Araya said that while the McGill students’ vision is the first proposal for a convention center in the capital, the municipality began examining the idea last year when it formed the seven-member San José Tourism Board and a special advisory commission of tourism and business leaders focusing on convention center proposals. Yglesias is a member of the commission.

When Cartín contacted the municipality and Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) suggesting that a McGill team create a proposal, both institutions signed on as sponsors. Cartín, along with fellow students Andrés Baez-Rodríguez, Veronique Dryden and Gemma Peralta, then got to work as part of their program at McGill’s Centre for Developing-Area Studies in Montreal. As part of their research, they visited San José to survey the area and interview area residents and government officials.

At the heart of the plan is the convention center, with room for 16,000 people. The building would incorporate the existing structures, transforming storerooms into conference halls and an interior yard into an exhibition area, with plenty of glass to make use of natural light and the view of the mountains beyond.

Like Yglesias, Rodolfo Araya and many other municipal and business leaders in recent decades, Cartín pointed out that Costa Rica, though a natural choice for business travelers given its reputation as a stable and beautiful destination, offers no facilities to compete with the convention centers in Panama City or San Salvador. Because of this, San José is missing a golden opportunity to draw business travelers into the center of the city to sightsee – and spend. On average, business travelers spend three times what an average tourist spends, but these funds aren’t reaching San José merchants because of the lack of attractions downtown, Cartín said.

The team considered incorporating hotel facilities into the proposed Pacific Station center, but opted not to, since one goal of the project is to get people walking around downtown San José at night again rather than hiding away in an enclosed space.More eyes and activity on the street will reduce crime, according to Cartín.

With this in mind, a north-south pedestrian boulevard on what is now Calle 2 – lined with hotels, shops and restaurants –would connect the convention center to the San José Posible area and, still further north, to the well-traversed existing pedestrian boulevard on Avenida Central.

South of the proposed convention center, the project calls for neighborhood beautification efforts to spruce up neighborhoods and address the crime problems there.

Yglesias oozed enthusiasm for the project, though he said he doesn’t like the idea of using all of the train station’s existing structures. Preserving the historic central building is a great idea, he said, but the rest of the convention center should be separately designed for maximum flexibility.

“Let’s do it right,” he said, explaining that the warehouse and other structures should be leveled to give architects freedom.

Outward Bound

The project doesn’t stop in southern San José. It also involves a massive overhaul of the city’s public transportation, keeping buses from outlying suburbs and cities out of San José and making it easy to move around the now-clogged urban region.

Park-n-ride lots east and west of downtown are the first step. Drivers and bus riders from western areas such as Escazú and Alajuela, or from eastern suburbs such as Curridabat, would alight at the lots, then take a second bus – or train – downtown.

“Thirty percent of the traffic downtown is from people traveling through the city, not people whose destination is within San José,” Cartín said.

A train from San José to JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela would pass through the convention center, which, in the proposal, is a transportation hub. The project also seeks to breathe new life into an existing, but struggling, proposal for an eastwest bike path, and would create short, parallel north-south bus routes to improve circulation within the city. Current options for bus travel within San José are highly limited, though poorly maintained downtown sidewalks make walking a tricky and often unpleasant venture.

All these proposals are designed to rescue a city that, beginning in the 1960s, when many older buildings were demolished, and continuing in the 1980s, when urban flight carried people to the suburbs, has become a crime-ridden zone where 30% of buildings are abandoned (TT, Aug. 5, 2005).

Ahead: The Unknown

Cartín emphasized that the proposal is just that – a proposal – and that extensive further study would be required before the project could become a reality.

Existing plans for a San José renaissance have had mixed results. San José Posible has moved forward, as have efforts to bring a diesel train back to the city’s tracks; since 1996, has been shuttling passengers across town (TT, Aug. 12, 2005).

However, other proposals lie stagnant. A long-awaited commuter train between San José and Heredia, as well as the bike path reincorporated into the McGill plan, face a highly uncertain future. Though both are part of a European Union-funded project called Regional and Urban Planning for the Greater Metropolitan Area, which seeks to fight urban flight and improve infrastructure, among other goals, part of the E.U. contribution of $3.8 million is in danger of being lost because of lack of bids and the requisite matching funds (TT, Dec. 8, 2006).

Government plans for a convention center in San Antonio de Belén, northwest of the capital, to be partially financed with a donation from the government of Taiwan, floundered when the President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) slated the funds for the reconstruction of Hospital Calderón Guardia after a devastating fire there in 2005. Yglesias said that while that plan may still be under consideration, the upcoming San José-San Ramón highway expansion project calls for a toll station to be built directly in front of the reserved land, which would make the site virtually unusable as a convention center because of the resulting traffic congestion.

To succeed, the Pacific Train Station proposal will need widespread support, from the National Railway Institute (INCOFER) to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) to private investors.

Rodolfo Araya said the San José Tourism Board will begin considering the proposal as soon as February.

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