Return to El Centro: Changes attract residents to Cuenca’s historic district

07/Septiembre/2012 | 16:44

By David Morrill

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Juan Heredia realized he had a problem in 1998, when he was living in a suburban area 10 miles southwest of Cuenca’s historic district.

“My business was in the historic district and since I worked as a tour guide, I was spending  most of my time showing people landmarks there too. Then, after work, I would meet my friends in the district. Except for where I slept, I spent most of my life there. It is where the restaurants and theaters are and it’s where people get together. It is the heart of Cuenca.”

Heredia discussed the situation with his wife, Andriana Carrasco, whose graphic design business was also located in the district, known locally as El Centro. The couple made the decision to move.

Moving, however, presented another problem, says Heredia: the scarcity of comfortable homes for sale in the district. “As a residential area, the district had been in decline for many years and it was difficult to find nice places to live. There were some impressive renovations of old houses, but these were made into businesses, not residential properties.”

Heredia and Carrasco bought an old house in El Centro’s Barranco section, overlooking the Tomebamba River and, working with their friend and architect Carlos Espinoza, began to renovate and expand it.

Although they used portions of the existing structure, most of the construction was new. “We wanted a modern house that incorporated traditional styles and materials,” says Heredia. Espinoza chose tiles and bricks made in Cuenca and used stone from nearby quarries for countertops and accents. The finished three-level house, which features south facing city views, incorporated three rental units and a rooftop patio.

During the project, Heredia, Carrasco and Espinoza, made the decision to take on other projects. “We were having fun and we knew that there were other people beside us who wanted to live in El Centro.” They recruited two more partners and began looking for other downtown properties to redevelop.

One of the major appeals was the city’s plan to improve and rejuvenate the historic district. “We knew this would mean there would be more and more demand for housing,” says Heredia.

One of the objectives, in fact, of Cuenca’s historic district council is to bring people back to the historic district to live. Since the 1960s, the population of the area has dropped 40% as families have left old homes for newer ones in nearby neighborhoods and the suburbs west and northeast of the city.

Council director Daniel Astudillo, who describes his job as “protector” of Cuenca’s architectural heritage, says the district has never really been abandoned. “Many of the old houses have been converted into hotels and hostals, and this has attracted more tourists and has kept downtown busy.” Still, he said, more improvements were needed.

According to Astudillo, the master plan for El Centro, in addition to preserving its historic character, involves reducing vehicular traffic and adding pedestrian malls and bike trails. “This is a quality of life issue,” he says. “Today, there are simply too many cars and buses on the streets.”

To solve the problem, the city plans to build several large parking garages on the periphery of the district. The first, which will handle about 200 cars, is already under construction in Parque de la Madre, south of the Barranco. Two more will break ground within a year, one near San Sebastian Plaza on the district’s west side, and another near San Francisco Square.

Another project, a European designed light rail system, will reduce the number of buses in the district, according to Astudillo. Construction begins this fall on the $230 million, 22-kilometer project, which will have lines on Calles Sangurima and Lamar. Completion is expected by early-2014. According to estimates, the system will handle 100,000 passengers a day. “Our projection is that this will reduce the number of buses in El Centro by 20% to 25%,” says Astudillo.

“These changes will make the historic district even more appealing and make people more inclined to live here. This is why I am excited about the work that Juan Heredia and his partners are doing,” Astudillo says.

In addition to his own home, Heredia and his partners have completed work on one project, Casa San Sebastian on Calle Simon Bolivar, and are finishing a second on Juan Jaramillo at Benigno Malo. A third project, nine blocks north of Parque Calderon, is under construction and the partners are in the market for their next location.

“Our model is a building that we can remodel into a small number of apartments, maybe eight to 10,” says Heredia. “We want projects that are intimate and that fit well into the culture of the district. On the other hand, we want to provide high quality, modern construction.”

Heredia’s projects have proven highly popular with buyers, more than half of whom are foreigners, the first two selling out months before completion and the third 70% sold almost a year ahead of completion.

If there is a drawback to renovations in the historic district, it is the permitting and inspection process required by Astudillo’s office and other authorities. “It requires a lot of time and effort and this probably discourages some investors,” says Heredia. “On the other hand, I understand that it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the historic district. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the heritage of Ecuador,” he says. “I believe that this makes our projects better and makes the experience of living in El Centro more rewarding.”


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