Feature

San Juan to Ban Cars, Make "Walkable City"

The oldest city in the Americas bans cars from its colonial streets and outlines a plan to make San Juan more livable. David Soto gives us a look at this ambitious plan.
July 26, 2010, 10am PDT | David Soto
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The city of San Juan has unveiled a plan to make its oldest district, Isleta, livable and walkable. Isleta is a small island connected to mainland Puerto Rico by a series of bridges and a ferry. These are not enough to suit the needs of its citizens. Banning automobiles from Old San Juan and adding a light rail system are the first and most important steps, followed by the revitalization of old neighborhoods, an emphasis on public spaces and walkability and new mixed-use developments. The plan affects Isleta, which is composed of Puerta de Tierra and the more well-known and touristy Old San Juan, and the Convention Center District.

 A new plan for Isleta.

Many have tried, but failed, to pedestrianize Old San Juan. This time however the plan is endorsed by the state permits agency, which means there may be little reason not to move forward with it. Businesses usually oppose the car ban because they think they will cause them to lose customers, but this is simply fear of the unknown. The majority of business in Old San Juan comes from its cruise ship ports. Plus, as the plan tries to explain, the new light rail will actually bring in more customers because roads are up to capacity. Besides, the municipality already filters automobile traffic into Old San Juan allowing only residents to enter, and the rest must park in nearby car parks.

Redevelopment of La Perla is probably the most challenging part of the plan because it is a low-income neighborhood that has been neglected by all forms of governments for decades. Its history as a meat district is rich but its present is poor. Adjacent to the beautifully preserved and maintained Old San Juan, it kind of makes you wonder why it was allowed to become so rundown. The municipality wants to upgrade the neighborhood's infrastructure and modernize its buildings. I predict that even if San Juan becomes successful in improving the living conditions of La Perla's residents, the revitalization strategies could lead to gentrification of the neighborhood unless steps are taken to prevent this. After all, the goal of the plan is to make La Perla a showcase of local culture and food.

 Illustration of La Perla redevelopment.

La Perla redevelopment visualized.

The most important aspect of the plan is its emphasis on promoting other modes of transportation besides the car. It proposes a new 5.3 mile light rail system and a brand new bikeway / pedestrian ring to circle Isleta. The light rail system will serve to reconnect the island with the rest of the city and its metro system, the Tren Urbano. The pedestrian ring will make it easier for locals and tourists alike to get around the traditionally car-centric Isleta while also offering a new perspective of the walled city.

The report argues that the loss of mass transit in the Isleta is at least partially responsible for the massive decrease in population. A graph shows how tramways (streetcars) ignited a rise in population and the railroad system was the peak of this until 1957 when the railroads of Puerto Rico were allowed to go bankrupt that the population of Isleta came crashing down from 34,637 (1920s-1940s) to 7,963 today. It is important to talk about the history of Isleta because Puerto Ricans don't realize how much more convenient life would be if we hadn't completely ripped out the streetcar systems and new options are needed to take away the stigma public transit carries in Puerto Rico.

 Plan details for Isleta.

Old San Juan Terminus will be built on a parking lot in front of one of the main cruise ship ports.

The new light rail will have two transit hubs. The Old San Juan terminus will be developed on a huge parking lot and will be right in front of the cruise ships, giving the tourists a more convenient glance at the rest of San Juan -- one that does not require exorbitant taxi fees or decision-making as to where to go. The local bus system is surprisingly inefficient, with long wait times and unreliable schedules, so a light rail system is the one thing residents want. The other transit hub will be in the new Convention Center District. This district used to be a military base and it is now home to the Puerto Rico Convention Center and a new Sheraton Hotel. Nonetheless, many parcels remain empty, signaling a catalyst other than just a brand new convention center is needed. This is where a light rail could potentially make many projects planned for the area get their cranes in gear. San Juan's mayor has made trips to Oregon Iron Works so there is a fair amount of certainty the trains will be from that company.

Surprisingly, as the plan mentions in many places, 70% of Isleta's waterfronts are inaccessible. More than 50% of the South waterfront space is taken up by an empty port, from back when Isleta was an important shipping hub, and most of the North waterfront is inaccessible because the fort walls are a barrier dividing residents from the coast. Stairs would be built to the beach and would minimize impact to the existing wall. Hotels and other mixed-use buildings will be built along both the North and South waterfronts. They will be built in much of the unused land in Isleta including surface parking lots. The plan also looks to combat erosion on Isleta by creating "artificial reefs" (look like offshore break waters in the render) and pumping sand onto the beaches of the North coast. This will create a new destination for locals and tourists and help protect the islet from rising sea levels. In the face of new development, the municipality also plans to "revitalize the rundown neighborhood of San Agustín" while avoiding the destruction of historic buildings from developer interest.

 a series of bridges/entrances to Isleta.

A mess of onramps and fast lanes will be replaced with a more streamlined design to create a more inviting and memorable gateway to Isleta.

There is a strong emphasis on redefining Isleta's public realm. The proposal illustrates a connection between parks in the north and south waterfronts with "green connectors" or landscaped boulevards, creating a sense of continuity and connectivity in between destinations and ultimately making Isleta more livable and enjoyable.

Establishing a memorable gateway to Isleta is also very important. The current disaster of onramps and high speed lanes has made the experience of driving into Isleta a very painful one. In the near future these will be entirely removed and replaced with 4 roundabouts. The new simple and clean design will lower the speeds of drivers but it will also lower congestion. It will also remove the extreme barrier between Miramar and the Convention Center District.

The report titled, The Walkable City by Antonio DiMambro & Associates, Inc. is very ambitious and utilizes many progressive urban planning ideas such as historic preservation, integration of diverse socioeconomic sectors, bicycle infrastructure, mass transit and mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

The mayor presented his proposal to an audience of investors and construction industry representatives on Friday, 10 July 2010. Mayor Jorge Santini said the city is only lacking funding for the estimated $1.5 billion project, and he is seeking funding from all sectors to help make San Juan more livable. He hopes the Isleta can be an example for the rest of the Island, which, since the 1950's, has seen a shift in development patterns toward a more sprawl and automobile-oriented lifestyle.


David Soto is studying to be a transportation systems engineer / urban planner in Puerto Rico.

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