A proposal to construct an aerial footbridge between historical buildings now known as hot spots for prostitution in downtown San José is shaking up politics in the capital.
The proposed bridge would run east-west above Calle 9 to connect the second floor of the Hotel Del Rey, one of the largest casino hotels in downtown San José, with the block across the street where the Key Largo Bar and Del Mar Restaurant are located.
An administrative court will now take up the issue after it divided the San José Municipal Council, drew a veto from Mayor Johnny Araya and caused Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González to review her ministry’s apparent approval of the bridge proposal during the previous administration.
Municipal Council president Patricia Marín said opponents to the bridge are discriminating against the owners of Hotel Del Rey and Key Largo Bar because they allow prostitution in those businesses.
“This isn’t about morality … we were just voting on a permit,” said Marín, who along with a majority of the council voted in favor of giving the permits to the company Anexo Gran Hotel, S.A., which owns the hotel, bar and restaurant, to construct the bridge.
Opponents say their dissent has nothing to do with moral issues.
Councilwoman Luz Villalobos said “very few people pass through that area,” which is why she sees no public interest in allowing the bridge to be built. Her vote against it has nothing to do with the prostitution issue, she said.
Adult prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, though there are laws against the exploitation of minors and against pimping.
In January, Mayor Araya vetoed the council’s approval of the project. The council, in turn, rejected Araya’s veto, which means the issue must be decided by an administrative court judge. Marín said it could take the court months to decide whether Araya’s veto has a legal basis.
Carmen Azofeifa, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Araya vetoed the bridge proposal based on a technical recommendation from the municipal urban development department.
Department director Vladimir Klotchkov said his team ruled against the proposal because “from a technical standpoint, we see no public benefit to the environment.”
Though the Engineering Department of the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) approved the bridge proposal during the administration of former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), new Minister González decided to have the issue reviewed. At a press conference Wednesday, she said it appears no final permits were granted, and reiterated she is concerned about whether the bridge would be for public or private use.
“The hotel would dictate who uses it and who doesn’t,” she said, adding that children, for example, aren’t allowed to enter the casino and thus wouldn’t be able to use the bridge to cross the street.
MOPT spokesman Omar Segura acknowledged there are other aerial bridges above public roads in San José that were built by private businesses, including one in the Plaza Mayor shopping center in western San José, and one connecting two buildings of the private Clínica Bíblica Hospital on separate city blocks in southern San José.
“In those particular cases you can say a public interest exists. Because they are in high traffic areas, the whole world uses them, any Costa Rican,” he said.
Representatives of the Hotel Del Rey declined to comment on the record.
The bridge proposal was also approved by the Cultural Patrimony Conservation Department of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, whose authorization is required because the property is in an area protected for its historical heritage.
All of the buildings are in a special controlled zone in downtown San José, meaning changes made on the outside of the buildings must receive the Culture Ministry’s stamp of approval, which it gave to the proposed bridge in late 2005.
The bridge would run from the second floor of the Del Rey across Calle 9, and would descend with stairs and an elevator onto property in front of the Del Mar and Key Largo, according to design plans submitted to the Culture Ministry in 2005.
Both the Del Mar and Key Largo buildings are considered historical patrimony, meaning the Culture Ministry must approve any changes to the buildings.
The Key Largo Bar was once a Victorian-style building that was rented out by the University of Costa Rica’s music school until the 1970s, when it was turned into a bar that is now a popular hangout for prostitutes and their clients. It was originally built as a brick casona as early as 1907. The building was declared historical patrimony in 1989, according to the ministry’s archives.
Del Mar Restaurant was once Casa Acacias, a home built as early as 1891 at a time when the area was a neighborhood for wealthy coffee plantation owners, foreigners and business people. The adobe home is treasured for a glass façade facing Parque Morazán and was declared an historical heritage site in 2000. Hotel Del Rey’s owners bought it in 2002, according to the Culture Ministry’s archives.
In 1947, a five-story apartment building that served as lodging for surgery patients was built where Hotel Del Rey is now.
During the 1948 civil war, troops often occupied it for its strategic height as one of the tallest buildings in San José at the time. The bullet-ridden building had to be remodeled before it became Hotel Del Rey in 1992. The 104-room hotel obtained a casino license in 1994, and has made several additions since.
Online, the hotel is advertised “one of the top places to meet someone in San José, especially for single men that seek girls and nocturnal activities.”
Del Rey and Key Largo are both declared tourist sites by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), which occasionally inspects the businesses.
Authorities who have conducted inspections of the hotel have told press they haven’t found any violations there.
The company Anexo Hotel Costa Rica owns all three buildings, and the owners have butted heads with authorities several times in recent years over changes made to Key Largo and Del Mar, according to documents in the Culture Ministry archives.