New renovation plans for Cuenca’s San Francisco Plaza are drawing criticism from vendors who currently operate businesses in the area. The plans call for a landscaped open public plaza with businesses relocated to commercial space below street level. Currently, vendors occupy rows of corrugated metal and wood structures that have long been considered an eyesore by historic district planners.
A center of public life in Cuenca during the 18th and 19th centuries, San Fransico Plaza is a block to the southwest of the Cathedral, bordered by Presidente Cordova, Juan Jaramillo, Padre Aguirre and General Torres. More than $8.5 million has been allocated for the project.
Ironically, the new plans are the result of complaints in late 2012 by a coalition of architects that the original plan was too commercial and did not preserve the historic and anthropologic integrity of the plaza. The original renovation plans called for a three level mall with a subterranean parking garage for 200 cars and two levels of commercial and restaurant space above ground.
The new plan eliminates the parking garage and the above ground structure, creating the open plaza. The plan also includes funding to restore four buildings on the south side of the plaza. Planners hope to relocate Otavalan merchants, currently located on Calle San Francsico, on the north side of the plaza, to the restored space. The Otavalans sell Ecuadorian-made clothing and blankets.
"We disagree that there needs to be total refurbishment of the square,” said Glenda Guzman, member of the business cooperative currently occupying most of thesquare, in a meeting with city authorities on Thursday. “We agree that the area needs to be cleaned up and made inviting for tourists, but don’t take away our livlihoods. How can we make a living if you put us where our customers can’t see us?” she asked.
Other vendors complained that they were being penalized by the fact that many of them sell inexpesive Chinese imported items, mostly clothing and housewares. "No, we don't sell artisanal goods, we sell things that people need," one vendor said.
Monserrath Tello, president of the Commission of Historical Areas agreed that removal of businesses from street level will be a difficult adjustment but said that the increased foot traffic, both local and from tourists, will ultimately result in increased business traffic. Tello said that businesses would be relocated in areas near the plaza during construction.
Efforts to improve San Francisco Plaza date back to 1956 and have proved a political lightning rod for those who have tried. At least five mayors and countless committees and commissions have tried and failed to to upgrade the area, presenting at least half a dozend detailed plans along the way. "San Francisco Plaza could be a jewel of Cuenca's patrimony if we can ever restore it," says Tello. "It could be a magnet for tourists. Now it is ugly and a place to avoid."
Cuenca mayor, Paul Granda, has made the project a centerpiece of his administration and says that current efforts will not fail. Grande stands for reelection next year.
Opposition from vendors and disagreements among planners continue to dog restoration efforts. This week the Cuenca director of cultural patriomy, Santiago Ordoñez, resigned, in part because of issues surrounding the San Francisco Plaza project.
Daniel Astudillo, director of Historical Areas, presented the new plan on Wednesday, hoping it would satisfy the historic concerns that had prompted the redesign. He said that the parking garage, which he said is essential to the project, would be relocated to an area south of the plaza, off of Calle Miguel Ullauri.
Photo caption: An artist's drawing of the new San Francisco Plaza, and how it looks today.