By Sylvan Hardy
Juan Heredia realized he had a problem in 1998, when he was living in a suburban neighborhood 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 there anyway. 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.”
Following an exhaustive search, 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 the historic center would become more desireable and that there would be 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 district to live. Since the 1960, 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, completed in 2014 under Parque de la Madre, south of the Barranco, has 200 parking spaces. A second is planned for San Francisco Square, scheduled for renovation in 2016.
Another project, a European-designed light rail system, will reduce the number of buses in the district, according to Astudillo. Construction began in 2012 on the $240 million, 21-kilometer project, which will have lines on Calles Gran Colombia, Lamar and Sangurima. It will be the largest public infrastructure project in Cuenca’s history with completion expected in early 2017. According to estimates, the system will handle 120,000 passenger trips a day. “Our projection is that this will reduce the number of buses in El Centro by about 25%,” says Astudillo.
“We realize that it will take several years to accomplish everything we want to do but these changes are an excellent beginning. They will make the historic district 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 three historic district projects including Casa San Sebastian on Calle Simon Bolivar and Casa Jaramillo on Juan Jarmillo, and are working on two others over-looking Rio Tomebamba on Calle Larga.
“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 four selling out months before 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.”
Heredia is not the only one recognizing the potential of El Centro. A doctor and her husband from Hawaii are renovating an historic building on Calle Sucre, a block west of the cathedral for high-end rentals. “Something that you see in other established expat communities that is missing in Cuenca are luxury rentals,” says Jim Willis. “Cuenca is promoted as a place for folks on a budget but there are other foreigners who are looking for high quality accommodations and can afford to pay for it,” he says. Willis says his project will be complete in late 2016.
Reposted from the Miami Herald