Plans to turn one of San José’s busiest streets into an official Chinatown, bookended by two ornate arcs and traversed by touristic rickshaws in place of cars, have been stalled until the municipality can raise $2.5 million from the Chinese government and gain approval from the Costa Rican government.
Local owners of Chinese businesses in the area, meanwhile, remain cautious in their enthusiasm for a Chinatown, unwilling to throw their full support behind the stillforming plan until they know more about it.
Originally slated for Calle 9, where small Chinese-owned grocery stores and restaurants crowd each other for several blocks, the neighborhood now is planned for Calle 11, which runs behind La Soledad Church in downtown San José, between Avenidas 2 and 16, after the national Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) objected to the earlier plan.
The leader of the project in the municipality, Marco Corrales, said the municipality has asked for $2.5 million from the Chinese government to finance the Chinatown project, which would involve designing and building a pedestrian boulevard, install new trash cans and lighting, build façades for the stores and add other infrastructure.
“We’ve asked for the funds but right now we don’t know,” Corrales said.
Representatives from the Chinese Embassy would not confirm this figure.
Embassy spokesman Lang Hu said his government is pleased that the local government is going to build a Chinatown, but have little direct involvement.
“(San José Mayor) Johnny Araya informed us that they have this plan for the Chinatown,” Hu said. “We like that they’re building it.” He added that the embassy would be happy to collaborate more in the future with the planning.
Corrales said he hoped the embassy would provide the municipality with a Chinese architect to make the neighborhood’s design more authentic.
Recently, Costa Rican has benefitted from Chinese largesse, including a $72 million gift for a new soccer stadium and $300 million in low-interest loans. Corrales said that if the Chinese government doesn’t finance Chinatown, the municipality will try to raise the funds elsewhere by asking prominent
Chinese businessmen to contribute.
While shops with Chinese owners and themes abound on Calle 9, there are fewer on Calle 11, where Chinatown is slated to be built. Corrales, however, said the businesses will naturally gravitate towards the area.
“Chinatowns have formed primarily because of the existence of Chinese people,” he said.
Yet one business owner on Calle 9, Daxiang Lin, who owns a variety store called Daxiang Lin Limitada, said pedestrian-only streets would be bad for business.
“People won’t buy big things if cars can’t pass here,” Lin said, adding that all the Chinese-owned stores on his street are doing good business right now, without an official Chinatown.
But on Calle 11, Román Yuan, the owner of Don Wang restaurant, said he is excited at the prospect of a pedestrian street in front of his restaurant, but that the project needs to be, above all, safe and well-planned.
“For me, (a pedestrian street) is better as an owner because people can walk here, and there’s no danger from the traffic,” he said.
The planning and infrastructure of the neighborhood needs to be well done, he said, pointing out that Calle 9, home to more China shops than his street, is badly organized.
“When a client comes here, safety is most important to him,” Yuan said. He said he believes businesses would move to the street if a Chinatown were built.
Next door, the owner of Tin Jo restaurant, Robert Faulstich, said he believed the project had been canceled, and was waiting to hear more news.
Yet in addition to financial hurdles, the project still faces the challenge of passing the approval of MOPT, which already shot down the first proposed location of Calle 9.
MOPT engineer Mario Chavarría, who is in charge of analyzing the feasibility of closing Calle 11, said the results will be ready by mid-October at the earliest.
“We’re going to analyze this proposal to see what effects constructing a pedestrian boulevard would have on the rest of the city’s traffic flow,” Chavarría said. “The municipality is waiting for us to finish this analysis to see if their project is feasible.”
Representatives from the Chinese-Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce, which has voiced support for Chinatown in other news media, did not return repeated requests for comment