At 18 stories, the Banco Nacional building has for 26 years towered above the rest of San José as the city’s lone tall building. But not for much longer.
At least 23 new residential and office buildings are in the works for Chepe, as locals call the nation’s capital, and some of them will overtake the Banco Nacional building.
The development has two faces. One is the wave of mixed-use luxury high-rises going up around La Sabana Park, driven by developers who see potential for profit in the neighborhood’s great views and strategic location between San José and the ever-popular western suburb Escazú.
The other development, both around La Sabana and scattered throughout other parts of the city, is happening thanks to tax incentives and the cutting of some red tape by the Municipality of San José in its efforts to repopulate the city.
It’s only the beginning, said Vladimir Klotchkov, the head of the municipality’s urban development department and one of the brains behind a four-year-old project to bring people and businesses back to the city’s center.
“As soon as people start speaking well of the (city) center, renewal will be here,” he said.
Manhattan ofCentral America?
Hanging on a wall in one of the conference rooms of the architecture firm Arquitectura y Diseño is a black-and-white sketch of theisland ofManhattan. It bristles with skyscrapers, and down the middle is a long, dark stripe that isCentral Park.
Architect José Luis Salinas chuckles dismissively at the suggestion – recently made on the front page of daily La República – that San José could become like Manhattan. Yet the model of the 17-story tower that sits under the picture – Sabana Real, designed by Salinas – suggests some sort of transformation is afoot.
At least seven similar buildings are going up, all around La Sabana, on the west side of the city. “It is a formula that has been constructed in many countries for many years,” Salinas said of the public park-high rise combination. “For Costa Rica, it’s new.”
It’s not the only new thing San José has in common with Manhattan: Developers are now charging top dollar for the park-view apartments. Web sites of several real estate agents pre-selling the tower apartments put the units between $300,000 and $1 million.
Lot prices around La Sabana are starting to skyrocket as well, doubling and tripling in prime spots.
“There’s a little difficulty because the value of the property has gone up a lot,” said veteran La Sabana real estate agent Carlos González. “People are asking for up to $1,000 per (square) meter, and that makes sales more difficult.”
And the La Sabana real estate boom might just be getting started. Salinas said that only last month, a piece of property by the park sold for $1,500 per square meter. The scramble started in 2005, when Arquitectura y Diseño completed the Vista del Parque building on the western side of Parque La Sabana. It was the first mixed-use high-rise in the country that included apartments, offices and retail space in one building.
“That’s the one that pushed the dynamism that you see in the zone now,” Salinas said.
That dynamism has so far included at least seven projects around the edges of the park and three more in surrounding neighborhoods.
There’sMetropolitanTower, on the west end of the park, as well as plans for towers by the National Stadium, by the Más x Menos and in Sabana Este.
North of La Sabana, Salinas’ firm is erecting Torres del Parque, twin, 17-story residential towers that will approach the height of the Banco Nacional building.
Last week, Salinas’ investors got together with local government representatives to lay the cornerstone of Sabana Real, Architectura y Diseño’s third Sabana project, this one on the south side of the park.
San José Mayor Johnny Araya said at the cornerstone ceremony for Sabana Real that the development around the park goes along with the city’s plans to “repopulate” the city, adding that the construction is having a “clear detonating effect around the rest of the city.”
But while the Sabana boom fits in with the municipality’s plans, the truth is it has been somewhat of a surprise.
“We weren’t expecting growth to start (in La Sabana),” Klotchkov said. Since forming a “Repopulation Commission” in 2003, the city has focused on guiding developers through the forest of red tape and offering tax incentives to build in San José. The Sabana boom has caused a lot of the resulting development to pop up in the surrounding areas.
Barrio Don Bosco, just east of La Sabana, is one place that is on the upswing, with a tentative condo tower project by Hogares de Costa Rica that would include two towers, take up a whole block, and rise to 30 stories, according to the municipality.
However, Diana Escobar, a representative of Hogares de Costa Rica, declined to confirm any of the details, saying they are still being worked out.
Another project, also in the planning stages, would be located in Sabana Sur – Calle Morenos – and include three towers of 20 stories each.
Other smaller condominium developments working with the city are scattered throughout the eastern and northeastern parts of the city center. One, on the northern edge of Barrio Escalante, will include four four-story condo buildings, while two others in Barrio Otoya – near the zoo – will rise to 12 stories.
Architects such as Salinas argue that the vertical, high-density developments in San José are the best way to go, as they discourage the kind of sprawl seen in places like Escazú and Santa Ana.
“We can’t keep doing developments one next to the other,” Salinas said. Yet Klotchkov acknowledged that San José has its own problems, especially infrastructure ones like wastewater and public
transportation. Bureaucracy surrounding public utilities and road repair is a hopeless mess, much like the bus routes, which Klotchkov called “a spaghetti bowl.”
Laws need to be changed, Klotchkov said, “But the country for five years has been held hostage by the subject of CAFTA. You can’t do anything.”
In the end, the development itself might bring the changes.
“I think this collision course progress will force us to modernize everything,” he said.