San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Court Puts Stop to Arena

A high court has temporarily frozen construction on a $73 million soccer stadium in response to charges that the stadium will threaten the environment and quality of life in La Sabana Park, on San José’s western edge.

Guido Sáenz, who designed La Sabana in the late 1970s, requested the injunction because, he says, the stadium would convert the park, the “lung of the city,” into a noisy, dirty and crime-ridden place.

It could take months for the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to decide whether to allow the project to go forward, a situation that did not please the Executive Branch.

“I’m fed up. I’m bored of the obstacles that spring up around everything,” President Oscar Arias said in a statement.

The freeze is the latest setback in relations between Costa Rica and China, which is paying for the stadium and was expected to send workers and machinery here next month.

Last month, Sala IV ordered the government to release the details of China’s intended purchase of $300 million in Costa Rican bonds, despite China’s request that the information be kept secret.

“We assumed everything was approved,” Osvaldo Pandolfo, vice minister of sports, said in a statement. “Imagine if we had to start again from scratch in a new area. And we also have to think about how much the Chinese are willing to accommodate.”

China is now finishing the architectural plans for the stadium, said Juan Carlos Bonilla, spokesman for the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute (ICODER).

The Chinese had planned to build the stadium on land once occupied by the old dilapidated national stadium, which was razed in August. The new stadium will include a soccer field, a track, offices for 36 sports federations, hotel rooms for 75 athletes, and areas for fencing, table tennis and chess.

With a capacity of 35,000, it will dwarf Costa Rica’s largest existing stadium, the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José, which holds 21,700. The old national stadium held about 13,000.

A Chinese firm was set to begin construction in November with about 800 Chinese laborers and professionals, Bonilla said. Arias wanted to complete the stadium by May 2010 before he leaves office.

Sáenz, who served as minister of Culture, Youth and Sports from 1976 to 1978 and 2002 to 2006, claims the stadium would violate a 1993 law that prohibits further construction in the park except to “improve existing installations.” He also argues the stadium would violate the “fundamental right to … a healthy environment.”

Sáenz claims that the stadium would reduce the size of La Sabana, but Carlomagno Chacón, ICODER architect, said the structure, the parking spaces, pedestrian walkways and green spaces would cover 100,000 square meters, the same footprint as the old stadium.

The building itself would take up 40,000 square meters, compared to 48,000 for the old stadium, Chacón said. The new structure can accommodate more people because it will have three floors rather than two.

Sáenz also criticized ICODER for cutting down more than 300 trees to shift the stadium north. But Chacón said these trees were nonnative Australian evergreens, which hurt the soil and failed to attract native birds.

He added that other spaces, once occupied by the old stadium, will become part of the park, and native trees will be planted there. ICODER has not yet applied for environmental and health permits required to begin construction.

Sáenz said his greatest concern was traffic. With just 400 parking spots for some 35,000 spectators, the park’s outskirts will be crowded with parked cars, and the traffic on game days will be insufferable, he said.

ICODER officials said spectators could take the train, bus or walk to the stadium, but Sáenz said that was implausible, given the strong Tico car culture.

In a swipe at Sáenz, Arias said, “Only he who does not like sports, has never played sports, has never even put on a jersey to wash a car could possibly think to oppose this construction.”

Sáenz acknowledged he has never played sports and does not hide his disdain for Tico soccer.

“It’s sad because (Ticos) are passionately in love with soccer, and Costa Rican soccer is very mediocre,” he said.

Still, he said, he supports the construction of a national stadium in a different location, such as Hatillo, in southwestern San José, or la Uruca, in northwest San José.

“We’re not against a new stadium. On the contrary, build away – but not there!” Sáenz wrote. “Constructing this mega-stadium in the center of the city goes against public interest, logic and reason.”


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