San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican lawmakers eye neighboring land

Lawmakers have their sights set on prime  real estate next to the National Assembly for construction of a 10-story building that would serve as their new home. But first, they’d have to expropriate commercial buildings directly west of the Assembly’s current location in downtown San José, forcing businesses on the historical “Cuesta de Moras,” as the hill in front Congress is known, to relocate or close.

Health Ministry officials ordered lawmakers to look for new facilities because the current Assembly’s infrastructure is crowded and unsafe (TT, Jan. 7). 

Construction of a new legislative complex would cost an estimated $30 million, according to Patricia Pérez, a Libertarian Movement Party lawmaker and member of the commission charged with finding a new location.

If the plan moves forward, businesses that would be forced out include various second-hand clothing stores, Wong’s Chinese Restaurant, Rayuela and El Lobo Estapario (a live entertainment venue and restaurant), and the iconic Angel Theatre, one of the first theaters in the country, founded in the early 1970s. Only two of four property owners say they would agree to sell, Pérez said.

However, Costa Rican law only permits the expropriation of private property only when it is deemed necessary to protect the public interest. According to Pérez, that requirement is satisfied in this case because it is “desirable” to have legislative and judicial facilities within close proximity of each other. Many judicial offices, including prosecutors’ offices, courts and Judicial Investigation Police headquarters, are located three blocks south of the Assembly’s current location. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal is a block away.

The Executive Branch offices of President Laura Chinchilla, however, are located in the Zapote neighborhood, 3 kilometers southeast of the Assembly.

“We have already begun discussions with building owners and we have also asked the Finance Ministry to calculate the required appraisals,” Pérez said. “The amount of money   to be paid as compensation is determined by that ministry and it is a final figure.”

Assembly Plans 2

Legislators want to build a 10-story complex across the street from their current location to comply with a Health Ministry order to close some offices due to code violations. 

Jessica Phelps

Pérez said plans call for a “symbolic” square-shaped outdoor plaza where many of the businesses that could be expropriated are currently located. The plaza would “symbolize the democratic legacy of our country,” Pérez said. “Those buildings are surrounded by lots owned by the Assembly, so if the process becomes complicated, then we will discard the construction of the plaza and businesses will end up surrounded by a large [10-story] building.”

Plans also include the remodeling of current congressional facilities and the construction of a congressional museum. According to the lawmaker, the renovation also has an element of urban renewal in its design.

Small-businesses owners on the block say they are worried they will have to close their doors, lay off workers and lose their sources of income. Dennis Ávila, owner of Rayuela-Lobo Estapario, said the Assembly’s expansion would have a negative impact on his life.

“Any hard-working person with a bit of sanity does not want his or her wings cut off,” said Avila. “We do not agree with the decision, we are not happy with it, but we know we can’t fight the government’s plans. I would be willing to negotiate compensation with the government, but not with the owner of the building, because he and I have an excellent relationship.”

Another business owner that could be affected is Gandhi López, owner of the Talla Grande clothing store. López is afraid that if the store is moved somewhere else many of his customers will not return.

“At first I felt really worried about all this,” López said. “But after realizing that a project like this has been canceled several times in the past, I understood that it is quite possible that nothing will happen and I will continue running my business as usual.”

Never-Ending Story

The idea of building a new home for Congress has been under discussion for at least eight years. In 2003, Health Ministry inspectors determined that the current facilities fail to meet safety requirements regarding infrastructure and sewage, and they recommended the facilities be closed.

Yet the building has continued operating for several years despite complaints from legislative union members, who say that working conditions are unsafe.

In 2008, The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) signed a contract with Francisco Antonio Pacheco, who was at the time Assembly president, to build new facilities at a maximum cost of $96 million.

For nearly a year, CABEI hired the services of private firm Collier’s to negotiate the purchase of 24 lots on the east side of Congress. But that deal fell through when several landowners turned down the government’s offer.

On June 15, 2010, following a new complaint from the union, Health Minister María Luisa Avila ordered the closure and evacuation of 40 legislative offices due to structural problems including improper sewage disposal and infestations of rats and cockroaches.

Avila’s decision generated controversy among lawmakers, who scrambled to find a solution. Another deal for a site in Zapote, a district southeast of San José, fell through last May when opposition lawmakers decided that any new construction should happen on property already owned by the Assembly.

If negotiations with building owners at the new site move forward, construction could begin in May 2012, said Pérez.

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