In Old San Juan, History Is Being Run Over

The latest effort to limit vehicle traffic in the historical center of the Puerto Rico capital is being met with the usual arguments.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — On a small peninsula protruding over San Juan Bay lies a 500-year-old military citadel, its walls and colorful Spanish buildings attracting tourists year-round. The cobblestones of the narrow streets of Old San Juan bear not only the weight of history but of the hundreds of vehicles that drive on them every day.

There are 32 historical towns of colonial or early republican era listed as World Heritage Sites in Latin America by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Old San Juan isn’t one of them.

Although a few individual buildings on the peninsula are protected by UNESCO, the whole of the historical complex lacks the strict regulations around construction and traffic that usually follow the World Heritage Site designation. Here, the weight of vehicles frequently breaks the cobblestones, while vibrations cause buildings to sink further into the ground. The 170-year-old tunnels below ground are gradually collapsing.

In 2023, “there were 16 collapses on San Sebastián Street,” says Andy Rivera, president and founding architect of the Puerto Rico Historic Buildings Drawings Society, an organization that digitally recreates historical buildings.

In August 2022, San Juan made its most recent attempt to make its historical center more pedestrian-friendly: The municipal administration issued an executive order to establish an Advisory Council on Pedestrian Alternatives and Heritage Conservation of Old San Juan.

And as in the past, the order has brought about protests from merchants of the historical center, drawing tensions with conservationists as well as some residents — there are 6,383 people living in the historical area, according to the 2020 census.

“[These] cities were not created for automobiles,” says Héctor Balvanera Alfaro, director of the Historical Preservation of Building Heritage with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. “This has implications for the conservation of buildings and cobblestones, [without which] San Juan wouldn’t be the same.”

University of Puerto Rico’s Puerto Rican Digital Library, El Mundo Newspaper Photo Collection; Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Old San Juan’s Plaza de la Catedral and the Hotel El Convento are pictured in 1962, left, and in 2023. The hotel was opened in 1962 in a restored 17th-century Carmelite convent.

Although the municipality of San Juan stipulates weight limits to motor vehicles circulating and parking in the area, drivers often violate them, says Margarita Gandía, a resident who represents the Neighborhood Association of Old San Juan. “Certain trucks aren’t allowed to travel on these streets, but they ignore those rules,” she says.

Gandía, who is also part of the advisory council, hopes this latest attempt by the government to revitalize Old San Juan will put a stop to those and other problems. “We are who we are because of these walls,” she says.

But not if Diana Font, a resident and the president of the Merchants Association of Old San Juan, has her way. In her opinion, limiting vehicles will discourage customers from visiting the area, which already suffers from a shortage of free parking and designated zones for unloading merchandise.

“Now they are going to take even more parking away from merchants so that visitors won’t be able to reach establishments,” says Font, who is the owner of a parking lot in the historical center.

Font is the merchant representative on the advisory council, which is comprised of 11 people, among them public officials, conservation experts and civil society representatives. “You’ve got all these people, none of them merchants, deciding on merchants’ rights,” she says.

It’s not the first time that Puerto Rican authorities have attempted to restrict vehicular traffic in Old San Juan — nor is it the first time that merchants have aimed to thwart their plans.

In the 1960s, a grand revitalization study for the area was commissioned but never executed. In 1986, similar plans were revived, but when authorities closed the key commercial streets of San Francisco and Fortaleza to cars, the area’s merchants took the city to court, which forced authorities to reopen the streets shortly after. Other attempts in the 1990s and 2000s never took off.

Are merchants’ fears justified? Many studies show that preserving historical city centers in Latin America boosts economic activity. In fact, it’s the residents, especially tenants, who are at most risk of displacement following the spike in property values that follows revitalization. One 2021 study found that all 32 UNESCO World Heritage historic centers in Latin America have been undergoing depopulation since they were declared as such, even when local commerce booms.

University of Puerto Rico’s Puerto Rican Digital Library, El Mundo Newspaper Photo Collection; Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

A 1962 photo of Calle Tetuán in Old San Juan is held up to the same scene in 2023. Vehicles continue to circulate in the old town’s narrow streets, damaging the cobblestones and historic building infrastructure.

The multiple jurisdictions in charge of Old San Juan also get in the way of the execution of an effective conservation plan, says Pablo Ojeda, restorative architect and president of the Center for Conservation and Restoration of Puerto Rico, a private nonprofit dedicated to conservation and the study of cultural heritage.

While part of the walls that border the region, including the renowned Puerta de San Juan gate, is administered by a federal entity, the rest is state property. “This is a unique situation: It’s one unit with two owners,” Ojeda says. “Administering it together is necessary” to plan the future of the historical area. And challenges are compounded when considering that Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation, Ojeda adds, with heritage nominations having to be sought by the United States.

Neither the press office of the municipality of San Juan nor the city’s Office for Territorial Planning and Order replied to requests for comment before publication.

Ojeda says that any plan must be backed up and justified by a larger socioeconomic study. “Perhaps Old San Juan doesn’t need to be pedestrianized. Perhaps what’s needed is traffic control at specific times and days, or to improve the quality of the propositions,” he says.

Indeed, for Natalia Liz Flores, an Old San Juan resident, it would be necessary to increase the volume of public transportation that goes to the historical downtown area before pedestrianizing — which, she says, she would be in favor of. “Through the years I’ve seen [pedestrianization] become an increasingly complicated problem, but it’s necessary.”

Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

A rehabilitated historic building in Old San Juan now houses the Tourist Information Center.