San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Preservation: All Stick and No Carrot

 The four blocks surrounding the historic center of San José are lined with contrasts. Water-damaged 19th century relics sit across from brightly colored, concrete eyesores near the pedestrian intersection of Ave.

Central and Calle Central. A relaxing fountain, where the elderly read newspapers in the heat of the day under the shade of sagging tree limbs, sits a half block from light posts with chipped paint and missing lamps.

With every block having a different mood, downtown San José is a mélange of disjointed, contrasting styles.

The governmental HeritageCenter, part of the Culture Ministry, is trying to promote the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and districts. But, working with laws that threaten punishment instead of offering assistance, they have found themselves relegated to focusing on a few isolated problems every year.

This year, the center has a list of six buildings to restore in San José at a cost of $1.4 million, said Sandra Quirós, the center’s director. One of these is La Alhambra, located a half-block south of the intersection of Calle Central and Ave. Central and named after the famous 14th century palace in Granada, Spain.

With the help of the southern Spanish autonomous state of Andalucía, the sagging beige and burgundy building will be restored to a more original and respectable appearance.

“We’re very proud to have a historic property,” said Carlos Berciano, the nephew of the owner, Estela Rodríguez.

But after a fire gutted the top floor and damaged the roof ’s beams just over a year ago, Ms. Rodríguez didn’t have the money to repair the damage, much less restore the worn-out exterior of the late-19th century structure.

“We’re talking about a lot of money,” Berciano said.

To be more exact, close to $84,000 will go into the restoration, with the Culture Ministry and the Andalucían Council for Housing and Planning splitting the bill almost straight down the middle.

Even with the restoration, other problems remain: One revamped building, still surrounded by grimy structures lined by cracked paint, hardly transforms the block, though that was the original idea.

“The original project was La Alhambra plus the entire block, but Andalucía was only interested in the historic building,” Quirós said. “We’re still working with the property owners so that they do it (themselves).”

Over 400 structures have been declared historic by the Heritage Center, but it’s not always a designation that owners welcome. With the declaration comes the obligation to maintain and beautify the building – usually with little or no governmental help. Before the most recent preservation law was passed in 1996, it was not unheard of for owners to destroy buildings to rid themselves of the financial obligations.

“The destruction of historic buildings has practically stopped because the new law allows for penalization,” Quirós said. And while historic buildings sometimes do receive financial incentives, the owners of surrounding sites find few benefits from digging into their own pockets.

“There is no incentive,” Quirós said. “Better, there’s an obligation that’s in the San José zoning plan. If they don’t do it, they’re subject to the penalties.”

But many, including Quirós, see penalization as an inadequate measure, especially because the people to be fined are often those already lacking resources to maintain and restore their property.

“There are people who aren’t interested (in historic preservation), and they leave their buildings to fall apart because of that,” Berciano said. “It would be great if the government came up with more of a compromise.”

If the government is serious about protecting historic buildings and cleaning up San José’s image, it needs to offer more financial incentives to a larger number of owners, said Vladimir Klotchcov, head of urban management with the municipality of San José.

The center has been working with a legislative committee that is in the process of revising the municipal code – the basic law which governs urban planning in Costa Rica – promoting changes to replace punishments with financial incentives such as tax breaks. However, none of the reforms advocated by the center appear in the committee’s final draft of the new law. Nevertheless, the center is continuing to push for their inclusion, according to one of the center’s historians.

“(The reforms) would permit the municipality to give tax breaks,” Quirós said. “There’s a lot of agreement among people that the property owners should be given incentives to care for their buildings.”

Stronger municipal plans will help secure the historic status for certain neighborhoods and districts and this could then revitalize entire blocks, instead of one or two buildings on a block.

Until those plans change, the Heritage Center will continue to choose a few eyesores along well-traveled paths to restore every year. La Alhambra will be renovated later this year, but it will still sit across from dirt-laden buildings with cracked paint and loud banners.


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