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The bitter fight over plans to revitalize Santurce
by J.A. Del Rosario
Of The San Juan Star Staff

Monday, August 18, 2003

It’s a Thursday night, and the resistance against the government’s ongoing campaign to revitalize Santurce is meeting in a small building on Fernández Juncos Avenue that is still known by neighborhood people as the old home of publishing house Editorial Cultural. The building now houses San Juan’s Comunidad al Día offices, a municipal outreach program that lends support, advice and technical know-how to community groups in the area.

Inside, Ramón Figueroa, the program director is trying to rile up the audience, describing a hyper-gentrified picture of what their neighborhood will look like in the future if they do not fight for it now.

"From Stop 20 all the way to Miramar will be a row of closed-access gates, that only the owners of the $300,000 apartments can enter," he tells them. "Is that the Santurce you want?"

After his introductory speech, Figueroa introduces Marianne Hopgood to the podium. A graphic artist turned community activist, Hopgood is the driving force behind the San Mateo de los Cangrejos Community Action Board a group of residents from Santurce’s Antonsanti Street area, which is the government’s first target of expropriation.

"We can’t be part of a plan to buy homes cheap and sell them high at our expense,” she tells the crowd. "This is not a lost cause. We have a power as citizens. We have the power to dissent and we have the power to protest."

The rest of the meeting consists of short speeches by city officials, some jabs at Housing Secretary Ileana Echegoyen, a few indirect endorsements of San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, and a fire-and-brimstone speech by a municipal assemblywoman that fails to light a spark in the audience.

The crowd, mostly composed of senior citizens and neighborhood leaders, listened attentively to the speakers, applauded politely after each speech and filed quietly out of the building when the meeting was over.

"There is a sense of inevitability that we have to shake off them," Hopgood says the day after. "I keep making a point that the only way to win this war is to stay united and act. We have to fight this passivity that is so associated with the Puerto Rican character: the constant hesitation to get involved, to disagree. If we want to stop the enemy, we have to beat that attitude first."

Hopgood’s enemy is all around her. The Santurce revitalization plan is a $900 million joint venture between the government and private developers to repopulate the city’s old urban hub. Using the Puerto Rico Museum of Art as a launching point and Ponce de León Avenue as a spreading route, the revitalization plan includes a wave of developments that will create 4,000 new homes, 65,000 square meters of commercial real estate, and 41,000 square meters of new office space. To handle the new traffic burden, the plan also calls for widening of avenues and the construction of 2,400 new public parking spaces. Expropriations are inevitable, according to Housing.

The reorganization requires demolishing old, dilapidated neighborhoods, and using the land to create mid-rise apartments, and townhouses most of which will be priced from $250,000 to $300,000.

In the Antonsanti area, which lies behind the art museum’s gardens, the middle-working class people that make up the neighborhood have shown resentment at being displaced by their upper-class counterparts. The group says the revitalization of Santurce should occur in empty and abandoned lots only, and the only homes demolished should be those that the owners relinquish voluntarily.

The resistance movement, once a loose affiliation of residents, has been growing lately. Santurce’s renovation will touch many low-income neighborhoods in the area, and community leaders are viewing Antonsanti as a blueprint of things to come. San Juan City Hall has agreed to quietly help the groups with resources, and there are serious discussions on how to stop the slated developments.

From the balcony of her house in the Antonsanti section, one resident can see and hear the reconstruction of the Professional Building -- a 12-story office structure with art deco accents that once was the symbol of Santurce’s metropolitanism. In the past 10 years the abandoned building has become a symbol of Santurce’s decay. Now it is a hollow shell inhabited by a crew of construction workers that will slowly turn the former office building into apartments with prices starting at $300,000.

For this resident, who asked that her name not be used, the reconstruction is a sign of the times, a blatant alarm signaling her time to move on."I’m glad to be going, I think I got good money for my place," she says.

The government offer was $104,000 for a three bedroom, one bathroom house. The woman paid $46,000 for the house in 1989. Although she is content with the deal she made, she never got an independent appraisal. The value of her home was determined by the same company that is buying it -- Properties Acquisition and Relocation Management Corp. -- a private firm hired by Housing to carry out the multiple-step expropriation process. Calls to the company were not returned last week.

"No one is clear on how they are going about calculating the value," Hopgood says. "Part of the campaign is disinformation. They tell everyone something different. It makes it harder to organize the people. Everyone has a different version of what is going on."

As far as Hopgood can determine, the value is calculated using a flat square-meter rate. "How else can you explain that they appraise the properties without stepping inside," she says.

Claims of below-market-value appraisals are multiplying in Santurce. Community groups have begun conducting surveys to compare the offers being issued. In one case, a resident of Antonsanti Street received a government offer for $253,000, while an independent valuation rated the place at $400,000, according to Nelson Garayua, legal counsel of the Hopgood’s group. "We are seeing more and more of these cases," Garayua says.

Getting higher appraisals, however, may work against the group’s fight to remain in the neighborhood. The Housing Department is purchasing the land to then sell it to the private developers who will build on it. Any increases in the price Housing ends up paying for the land will reflect in higher prices once the planned homes are built. Housing estimates that it is currently paying an average $200,000 per home expropriated.

"First of all, we have the burden of buying the house even if we are going to demolish it. So we are not just paying for the land, we are paying for their homes." says José Cestero, executive director of the Housing Financing Corp., the branch of Housing spearheading the Santurce project. "But I think its safe to say that at an average price of $200,000 we are not offending any homeowners with our offers."

Not only are the offers good, but Housing has delayed the project until it had a satisfactory relocation plan for the people affected, Cestero says. "We have created relocation choices within the community."

Among them are the Bayola project, a two-tower apartment complex near Pueblo de Diego, developed by Housing as social-interest homes; and a senior-citizen community under construction on Mayo Street -- three blocks away from De Diego Avenue.

"If they still are not satisfied with their [purchase] offer, they can appeal the price to the expropriation court," Cestero says. "There are ways that ensure the process is fair."

So far, the resistance has not affected the project’s momentum. On Friday, while Cestero conducted an interview with The STAR, some of his officers were giving 18 developers an onsite tour of next Santurce lot to be developed -- a 5-acre lot of land facing Ponce de León Avenue. Housing wants an apartment complex with a commercial ground floor. Cestero expects the bids for that project to be submitted within four weeks.

"We ended up going to [San Juan Mayor] Jorge Santini because the streets where we live are city streets, and we thought if we could get the city into the fight we would have a chance to beat the government on this," says Carlos Montero, who rents a house on Candelaria Street, a side street off Antonsanti where a group of 11 residents are resisting the continuing arrival of expropriation notices.

Eleven others in the area have already sold their properties to the government. Santini agreed to meet with the community on July 3.

"The first thing that happened in that meeting was that the renters were asked to leave," Montero says.

The exclusion of the renters remains a sore point with Hopgood. Mainly because the exclusion, although based on the legal rights of owners versus renters, has traces of racial prejudice, residents say. The bulk of the estimated 50 renters in the Antonsanti area are Dominican nationals.

Before City Hall entered the picture, the resistance movement in Santurce was a triumvirate forged between Hopgood’s San Mateo group, the Dominican Human Rights Commission, and the Dominican Workers Unity Movement. For an activist group denouncing socio-economic prejudice, the exclusion of the Dominicans was a blow to its credibility.

"I am still coordinating closely with the other groups," Hopgood says. "But they were unfairly sidelined in the process, and they have less rights than anyone else. They, more than anyone else, need someone to stand up for their rights."

According to several sources who attended the initial meetings between the Santini administration and the community leaders, City Hall initially declined to get involved in the controversy.

"Stopping the expropriations did not directly benefit the city, so the municipality did not see any way that it could invest city funds to wage what was essentially a personal fight," said a resident who declined to be identified.

Eventually city officials who examined the situation closer started finding ways to get involved, albeit indirectly. The Autonomous Municipalities Law grants the city approval power of construction projects within its jurisdiction. Also, San Juan’s Urban Planning Master Plan establishes building parameters, some of which do not agree with the commonwealth government’s vision for Santurce.

"If there are differences between our development plan and the city’s, it is only because ours works with a lower level of population density," Cestero says. "And in any conflict between different zoning plans, the district zoning overrules any city planning, so the law would favor us."

"Everyone has a different story of what is going to happen, one person is told that they have to leave and their next-door neighbor is told that they have to stay," Hopgood says. "We can’t get a straight answer from them."

Observers note a lack of communication between Housing, City Hall and the residents. During the meeting, Figueroa warned the residents about people coming up to their doors asking questions about their property "to fill out a supposed survey."

"They are using the survey story to build a profile of the community to expropriate them," Figueroa told them.

Housing officials acknowledge they are conducting an expropriation survey, but it is a hardly a covert operation. The very first line of the agency’s plan for relocation calls for a data-gathering process to build a profile of the community and start working toward a successful relocation. The survey the residents are being told to dread is precisely the communication effort they claim is missing.

Between Housing and City Hall the miscommunication is resulting in contradictory projects. One of them is Bolívar Park, approximately one block away from the Antonsanti area. While the commonwealth is slating demolitions in the area, the city government is rebuilding the park. The conflict has already acquired political tones.

"You might wonder why we are building while they are tearing down," Figueroa told the meeting crowd as he set up a political pitch. "It is because that is how little communication and coordination there is between us. We continue with our own reconstruction plan for the Bolívar Park, but we reconstruct side by side with you, the citizens, the people who make up the community."

So far, the Santini administration has employed a back-door approach to lend support, an arrangement both sides agree is best to avoid politicizing the issue in the press.

"We cannot get involved directly," Figueroa tells the crowd. "This is your fight, and you have to fight it. If Santini gets involved then everyone will say it is a political game."

Hopgood says "it is better this way. They obviously have political motivations, and we don’t. We just want our neighborhood. But we are fighting a pretty great monster, and I’ll take help from whoever wants to give it to me."

During the community meeting, organizers made room for an unscheduled speaker, a 72-year-old engineer named Nicolás del Valle.

After a lengthy recount of his experience, his exploits and his life in the neighborhood, Del Valle laid out a course of action to fight the project: turning Puerto Rico’s convoluted permitting process against the developers.

"The government isn’t building these projects, the private developers are," he said. "And those developers are going to need construction permits. That is where we can attack them. That is how we can stop it."