At night, San José can look like a ghost town, a quality it loses at street level when the sun comes up and thousands of people throng the streets for their morning commute. A few meters above the sidewalk, however, the ghost town feel persists.
Dozens of multistory would-be office buildings in the center of the nation’s capital stand silent as tombs, even as the retail space below heaves with life. Some of the buildings have been abandoned for years, and their facades – and often their internal infrastructure – are holdovers from the 1970s and ’80s, better days for Chepe, as the city is popularly known.
Recently, however, San José has shown some promising signs of life. Several luxury high-rise condos are going up around La Sabana Park on the west side, and many more in surrounding neighborhoods are either in planning stages or under construction.
Hotels like the recently remodeled, five-star Grano de Oro are giving that side of the city a new whiff of prestige, and with a new highway finally going in that will connect the capital with the Pacific coast in a mere 80-minute drive (TT, Jan. 18), the city now holds out to future residents the tantalizing possibility of easy weekend escapes.
As the San José real estate market shifts, the center could be ripe for the picking, perhaps for investors who want to take a gamble on gentrification.
A map produced by the municipality shows that San José proper has more than 100 unoccupied buildings, which, highlighted in red, dot the map like measles.
Eddy Barquero and Giselle Orias, the husband-wife team that owns real estate agency Metro Cuadrado (www.metrocuadrado. info), based in the northern district of Tibás, said that potential investors are already sniffing around, looking for old buildings to purchase and rent as office or residential space.
“(Interest) is starting to go up,” Orias said. “Before, there was this idea that San José, you had to get out. Not anymore.”
In particular, Orias and Barquero – who have been in real estate in San José for more than two decades – have talked with several foreign investors looking to take advantage of San José’s fall from grace.
However, some serious obstacles remain in the path of any potential San José renaissance. For one thing, and as the government has recently realized (TT, Jan. 11), crime is a problem that won’t go away, and is a big turnoff to potential renters.
Perhaps graver from a business point of view, San José has a serious dearth of parking space, a fact that has been a deal breaker for many a would-be renter, Barquero said. “Whether something is occupied or not ends up with parking, and that’s it,” he said.“For many of these buildings, that’s the difficulty.”
Even worse, many of the buildings have been unoccupied for so long that their owners haven’t done basic maintenance to keep them in working condition. Some have been stripped of all their copper wiring by thieves, and most don’t have the wiring required for modern-day office infrastructure such as digital phone and Internet networks.
Others lack the basic handicap accessibility required by law of most office buildings these days, and still others display structural problems from decades of seismic tremors. Altogether, putting many of these office buildings in rentable condition would mean a huge investment.
And at the moment, it’s often not even worth it. A study done by Metro Cuadrado several years ago pegged the per-square-meter price for renting office space in some of these buildings at between $7 and $15 – hardly enough to net even a medium-term return on an investment.
Still, despite all the negatives, the market seems to be moving in a direction that could someday have these ghost town office buildings bustling once more. Orias said that government ministries and some banks are actively looking at renting space in the center of San José.
Likewise, several of the vacant buildings included in Metro Cuadrado’s study four years ago today have a fresh coat of paint and new residents.
“This will be the year of San José rising,” Orias predicted.