Urban redevelopment revives commerce in Mexico City center

MEXICO CITY -- The country's capital is in the process of a major makeover of its historic center, and nowhere is the urban renewal more evident than on Regina Street downtown.

MEXICO CITY – With its chic cafés, laid-back bars and brand new hostel, Regina Street offers a glowing testament to the urban renewal of this city's centro histórico.

"The center is coming back,” said Paulina Hernández Gutiérrez, general manager of Hostal Centro Histórico Regina, named after the street that – like much of the city's historic downtown – has undergone a radical makeover in the past five years.

Regina Street's "before," as people who have worked and lived here for years describe it, was dirty, dangerous and "funereal after 6 p.m.," said Rosendo López, who has spent the past 25 years repairing shoes at a hole-in-the-wall called El Bolerito. He remembers when the alley around the corner from the shop was a hotspot for taxi drivers to rob unsuspecting passengers.

The street's "after" is a safe, spotless, stone-paved corridor bustling with shoppers and diners, national and international tourists. López has witnessed the changes firsthand from his perch behind a counter piled high with old shoes. The alley he mentioned is now anchored by a design firm and decorated with a garden of towering bamboo plants sprouting from metal drums.

"All the changes have been good," he said. "There are more people now, and business is better."

What's happening on Regina Street is happening across the historic center, a labyrinth of stone palacios that date back centuries to the Spanish conquest and which gave rise to the capital's moniker as the "City of Palaces."

For decades, the "palaces" lay in disrepair. The neglect dated to an exodus of residents that began in 1950 and accelerated with the ruinous 1985 earthquake. Until as recently as 2007, the streets were clogged with more than 25,000 street vendors working in the shadow of buildings in ruin.

A new tax structure, in which property owners who leave their buildings abandoned pay higher taxes than those who invest in renovations, went into effect in 2010 and has helped spur redevelopment, said Inti Muñoz, director of Mexico City's Historic Center Trusteeship. The city in 2007 also relocated numerous street vendors into indoor shopping malls, clearing the streets for pedestrians.

Muñoz described the city's vision for urban renewal as one in which the centro doesn't become a museum but remains a "living city."

"We don’t want the center to be embalmed but be a living organism that has 700 years of history," he said.

On Regina Street, the Hostal Centro Histórico Regina is housed in one of the center’s historic locales, a building dating to the 18th century. Parent company Grupo Xtra discovered the abandoned building a few years ago, said Hernandez Gutierrez, just when Regina Street became pedestrian and the urban renewal was getting underway. The company pumped more than 5 million pesos, or $350,000, into the corner location in 2010. Today the hostel, whose occupation rate is up to about 70 percent, is drawing increased tourist traffic to the street.

Downstairs of the hostel are two new restaurants. Several others have opened up down the block, along with a few cafés, two design businesses and a tattoo parlor. A handful of businesses that have called the street home for many years are still around, as well, including a sewing machine repair shop, a pharmacy and a store for blue-collar uniforms among them.

Other streets downtown have seen a similar makeover: Madero, a primary artery in the center, was closed to traffic a little over a year ago and now attracts between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors daily to its shops, restaurants, museums and historic sites, according to Muñoz.

A local cab driver put it best as he hurtled toward the city center in his white taxi striped crimson and gold: When it comes to Mexico's urban heart, "it's renew or die."

Photo: Lauren Villagran

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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