Puerto Rico unveils $3 billion plan to revitalize Old San Juan, attract tourists, create jobs

By Danica Coto, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fewer cars, more beaches planned for Old San Juan

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Officials unveiled details of a $3 billion, two-part development plan for the capital’s historic quarter Tuesday that aims to ease traffic jams, attract more tourists and create thousands of jobs as Puerto Rico enters its fourth year of recession.

The backbone of the city’s part, a 20-year plan, is a $200 million light rail system running from Old San Juan to the mainland and scheduled to be completed by 2012, announced at a conference held to court private investment.

The trams are part of a $1.5 billion “Walkable City” project that includes proposals to build reef barriers, develop parks and construct paths to expand beach access from 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) of coastline to 7.5 miles (12 kilometers).

The plan also would try to ease daily traffic jams by restricting vehicle traffic in Old San Juan, located on the western tip of a small island with essentially one road in and out.

More than 77,000 cars currently enter the seven-square-block area a day. No details were provided on what restrictions are planned, but the idea is to get people out of cars and into trams and water taxis.

A trapeze school and an observation balloon also are in the works.

“It seems like a lot, and it is, but it’s real,” Mayor Jorge Santini said.

The other half of the revitalization plan is a $1.5 billion project known as “Urban Bay,” under which the U.S. territory’s government aims to build hotels to accommodate tourists, and office buildings and apartments to attract more permanent residents.

Officials are hoping to double the hotel capacity in Old San Juan and triple the number of full-time residents, currently about 8,000.

The mayor said some 4,700 tourists a day walk the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, known for its colonial architecture and tight rows of colorful homes, in what he called “hit-and-run” visits.

“We don’t want them to leave after three hours,” Santini said. “We want them to live here one, two and three days.”

It all seems ambitious for a city that has taken about a decade to finish a 150-yard (137-meter) bridge in the tourist district of Condado, Santini acknowledged.

Officials estimate the plan will create 20,000 temporary jobs and 7,000 permanent ones.

At least $25 million in local stimulus funds is immediately available and will be used to revitalize dark alleys and fix potholed streets near cruise ship docks under the plan proposed by the territory’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, said Jose Perez Riera, the agency’s secretary.

So far that is the extent of money that has been committed. Additional funding could come from local and U.S. government sources, and Santini said the city hopes to attract $1 billion from private investors.

Gustavo Velez, an economist and private consultant, said increasing the number of hotels in Old San Juan is a smart idea, but overall the island cannot afford the projects.

With the economy unlikely to improve until 2012, there will be scant appetite for the new apartments and it’s doubtful local investors have enough capital to support the plan, Velez said.

“Even when Puerto Rico comes out of its recession, it will not have the same level of wealth that it had before,” he said.

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