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Casco Viejo renovation project

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Plaza Bolivar, with the San Francisco de Asis Church in the background. Photo by Eric Jackson

Government unveils five-year Casco Viejo action plan

by Eric Jackson

On January 21 in the ornate upstairs salon at the Teatro Nacional the Office of the Casco Viejo unveiled the Torrijos administration’s master plan for the capital’s second colonial-era city center. The session was attended by three cabinet members and a deputy minister, the mayor, church, business and arts scene leaders, diplomats, the tourism police, urban planning experts, some suspicious local residents and representatives of the most of the nation’s news media. The presentation, however, was mainly given by architect Ariel Espino, who works for the Office of the Casco Viejo.

Espino emphasized that “this is not an idea,” but an action plan. “Really, it’s a fact, and it’s also a call” for broad community participation that would result in “a sustainable, irreversible recovery” for the neighborhood.

The architect noted that in the wake of Henry Morgan’s devastating raid on Panama Viejo, the new city was moved several miles to the west to a more easily defended point, and what had been a 50-hectare center where church and government institutions were located and the most wealthy and powerful families on the isthmus resided was squeezed into a 16-hectare redoubt. Thus the narrow streets and multi-story row houses.

But almost none of the Casco Viejo buildings date back to colonial times. That’s because the neighborhood’s first Spanish buildings were almost all made out of wood, and three devastating fires swept through the area in 1737, 1756 and 1781. The first of these great fires consumed almost the entire area, and major portions of what was rebuilt were again destroyed in the subsequent conflagrations. (One of the few surviving colonial-era houses, the Casa Gongora, is now owned by the city and used as a cultural center.) By the time that Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the Casco Viejo was mostly deserted.

Then, Espino explained, there was an urban revival, based upon the lot lines inherited from earlier times and at first featuring buildings with elements of the Spanish colonial but using more brick, stone and modern materials like wrought iron balcony grilles imported from New Orleans. (The interiors, however, still tended to be wooden.) As the 19th century progressed the area began to see neoclassical and neo-colonial architecture, and in the 20th century it acquired some art deco buildings.

Meanwhile, after the old colonial wall was torn down the area began a slow transition down the economic scale, as rich people moved away to less crowded neighborhoods and the poor moved in. Now most of the people who live in the Casco Viejo are renters, and a fair number of residents are destitute, having been moved to government-owned buildings in the area by the Housing Ministry (MIVI) after the wooden slums where they had been living in Santa Ana or El Chorrillo burned down or collapsed. In the 2000 census San Felipe, the corregimiento that almost exactly corresponds to the Casco Viejo, was the only city ward to lose population, down to 6,928 residents from 10,282 in the 1990 census.

Why the population loss? A lot of it came about after the Pérez Balladares administration passed a law to encourage the rehabilitation of the area’s buildings, which made it easier for property owners to evict tenants in order to renovate the properties. What happened was that speculators threw the tenants out and did nothing to improve the properties, figuring that they would more easily get top dollar from theoretical urban gentrifiers for buildings without tenants. Some of these speculators went a few steps farther, gutting the building interiors to leave empty shells with for sale signs. Today, Espino said, six percent of the neighborhood’s buildings have been restored, another three percent are in the process of being restored and nine percent are in ruins. This, despite generous tax breaks for restoration work.

“This is unacceptable,” Espino said, warning that there are laws about the abandonment of urban properties and that the current administration will enforce them.

Given that historical backdrop and warning of consequences that could come to certain individuals, he outlined the plan.

First there will be infrastructure improvements.

Already underway is the recovery of a parking lot next to the Teatro Nacional, which was originally designated for visitors to the area but over the years was taken over by the cars of people who work in government offices. That lot is being resurfaced and converted back to its original purpose. The city’s public market will be relocated and the present structure razed to make way for some more parking spaces. The old electric plant site will also be converted into parking. There are studies underway about the feasibility of underground parking in the area, perhaps under the plazas.

Vehicular access to and egress from the area is to be improved, first by measures to ease congestion on Avenida B and then by extending the Avenida de las Poetas into a traffic link between Amador and the Casco Viejo. There will also be studies about pedestrian and public transportation possibilities, including the possible revival of the old trolley cars.

Despite being the locus of the presidential palace, Casco Viejo’s utility infrastructures are inferior to those of many other parts of the city. The Torrijos administration intends to modernize and augment the neighborhood’s electrical grid, and put all the electrical, telephone, cable TV and Internet lines underground.

There will be an increase in police presence, and talks are ongoing among the various law enforcement agencies (remember, because of the presidential palace there is already a major concentration of the Institutional Protection Service, or SPI, in the area), private security guard agencies and various establishments to evaluate special policing needs. One of the things that’s being considered is specific police protection that would allow some of the area’s ornate churches which now remain mostly locked for security reasons to be more frequently open to visitors.

On the building rehabilitation front, there will not only be a continuation incentives for private investment and a crackdown on speculators’ abuses. MIVI has a schedule for fixing up the several properties it owns in the area, and work is already underway. Housing Minister Balbina Herrera was present and explained that people have to move out for the buildings to be fixed. This will be good news for some and bad news for others, because those who are moved out will not automatically get to move back in once the work is done.

A lot of the people who were moved to the neighborhood after disasters claimed their old homes weren’t paying rent before they moved to the area and aren’t paying rent now, and Herrera said that those who can’t pay rent will not get MIVI housing in the Casco Viejo. She explained that the rehabilitation plans call for a number of different apartments at various prices, and that among those who can demonstrate an ability to pay the rent families with children will get first priority and senior citizens who have lived in the Casco Viejo for a long time will be next on the list. The government’s plan is also to attract non-profit organizations to add to its efforts to provide affordable housing for the area.

There will be an effort to promote tourism, but as Espino put it, “tourism that fits into a traditional neighborhood, not a dead backdrop for tourists.”

That will include the rehabilitation of the mostly ruined Convento Santo Domingo, including the restoration of its collapsed Flat Arch and its conversion into a space for open-air events, the construction of five artisans’ shops and a restaurant, and improvements to the Museum of Religious Art.

The ruined Compañia de Jesus Church, which is also the site of Panama’s first synagogue, will be converted into an orchid museum and a small museum dedicated to the history of the Jesuit order and the Jewish community in Panama.

The Las Bovedas and Casa del Soldado area will get new and improved stores, restaurants and art galleries. The downstairs of the INAC building will be restored and opened to the public, and the Teatro Anita Villalaz will be refurbished. Government offices that take up much of this area’s building space will be moved elsewhere.

Maybe the most ambitious part of the plan to develop Casco Viejo tourism is an annual three-day festival, to take place every May.

There will also be programs to train local residents as tour guides, new bilingual promotional materials and a makeover for the Casco Viejo website.

The questions from the audience represented moods ranging from skepticism based on unkept promises by previous administrations to great enthusiasm.

The answers from the various public officials on hand seemed to reassure most of the hard questioners. Tourism director Rubén Blades noted that the Avenida de las Poetas extension would create a tourism “circuit” along which Amador, the Barrio Chino and the Casco Viejo would be linked in a holistic effort to bring tourists in a way that benefits people and businesses in the affected neighborhoods. A representative of the Ministry of Government and Justice said that in addition to increased police patrols and coordination among agencies, some particularly sensitive parts of the Casco Viejo may be watched by remote video cameras. Balbina Herrera said she’d be glad to meet with the San Felipe Residents Association, whose members fear that they could be displaced.

As one urban designer in the audience pointed out, there have been efforts to revive the Casco Viejo, some mere talk, some which included legislation and specific works, since at least the early 1970s. But this time it all seems less theoretical (fewer presumptions about what market incentives might accomplish) and more pragmatic (more specific and less grandiose plans for government actions). If any substantial portion of the plan that the Office of the Casco Viejo outlined comes to pass, then the cultural scene that has been growing in the area would be greatly advanced.

Part of the Roberto Lewis mural on the ceiling of the salon where the press conference was held. Photo by Eric Jackson

Also in this section:
Casco Viejo renovation project
Landfill removal
Mireya retains control, changes party name
Panama News Briefs

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