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Aug 1, 2004

Quito’s rebirth

An innovative program to relocate street vendors is the latest step in the transformation of one of the hemisphere’s most beautiful historic centers

By Paul Constance, Quito, Ecuador

Where did the street vendors go?

Ecuadorians who venture into the historic district of their capital city these days sometimes have to rub their eyes. Streets that for decades were clogged with makeshift stalls selling everything from food and clothing to medicinal herbs and car parts are now open, clean and accessible to pedestrians.

The vendors have not disappeared, however. They have simply moved to one of eight new, multistory shopping complexes just steps away from their original locations. The complexes offer bright, well-lighted walkways through which shoppers can browse hundreds of shops, plus restaurants, clean restrooms, security guards—and even piped-in music.

The relocation of some 6,000 street vendors during 2003 was the most visible and anticipated accomplishment of an urban renewal program that has transformed Quito’s historic center during the last decade.

Many observers thought these streets would never be cleared. The vendors have long been a preferred source of discounted goods for Quito’s working-class families, and as a result they form a powerful interest group. Over the years the vendors organized themselves into several dozen associations that controlled access to coveted sidewalk space on the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the historic district. The associations jealously protected their respective territories, and for years they had opposed any effort at relocation.

But the street vendors had detractors, too. The outdoor stalls made many streets and intersections impassable to vehicle traffic during the day, contributing to the infamous gridlock that leads many quiteños to avoid the historic district at all costs. The vendors also generated heaps of garbage that had to be swept off the streets at night.

A climate of lawlessness became associated with the areas where the vendors operated. Gangs of pickpockets kept vendors and customers constantly on edge. The unregulated vendor associations were sometimes controlled by unscrupulous syndicates that charged as much as US$12,000 for the right to set up a stall. Loan sharks took advantage of vendors who could not produce that much cash. All these factors curtailed economic development in the area.

The vendors themselves suffered under the arrangement. In addition to crime and illegal fees, they had to contend with Quito’s rainy and often chilly weather in their open-air stalls. And at the end of the day, each vendor had to pack up his goods and transport them to a safe location.

“I almost ruined my back lugging things back and forth,” laments César Jiménez, who sold a variety of products on the streets of Quito for 30 years, before moving into the Centro Comercial Hermano Miguel. The biggest of the new shopping complexes, Hermano Miguel has 1,596 retail stalls and is connected to another complex with more than 1,000 stalls. Each stall is fully enclosed and has display windows across the front.

“The complex is clean, warm and safer than the streets,” says Jiménez. “We don’t have to worry about theft and we don’t have to pack up all our merchandise each night.” His only regret, he said, was that some of his old customers had not learned how to find his stall in the labyrinthine complex.

Elegant window balconies embellish Quito’s historic center.

Urban renaissance. The street vendor relocation program was the most ambitious initiative undertaken by the Empresa del Centro Histórico de Quito (ECH), a unique autonomous agency that has was created in 1994 with the goal of preserving the historic center’s unique architectural and cultural legacies and stimulating the area’s socio-economic development.

The United Nations named Quito’s historic center a World Heritage Site in 1978, citing the extraordinary concentration of churches, monasteries, and ornate 19th century residences and government buildings that ring its 500-year old plazas and line its narrow streets. But that recognition was not enough to reverse a decline that began in the mid-20th century, when population growth and suburban development lured Quito’s wealthy families to spacious new residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. Many fine buildings were converted to low-cost rentals or simply abandoned and occupied by squatters. Traditional retailers relocated to newer neighborhoods and were gradually replaced by street vendors.

By the 1980s, Quito’s historic center had become synonymous with violence, filth, congestion, and crumbling buildings. Several municipal governments attempted to reverse the process through laws and regulations, but these “top-down” approaches met with little success. By the early 1990s, everyone agreed on the need for a fresh approach—one in which city officials, private investors, local residents and vendors would work together to improve the historic center in ways that would serve everyone’s self-interest.

The result was the creation of the ECH, which was partially financed by a US$41 million loan from the IDB. As a semiautonomous enterprise, the ECH handles its own funds and is authorized to make investments and development business partnerships with the private sector. This has given it the flexibility to undertake an astonishing number of projects and investments aimed at making the historic center an attractive destination for residents, businesses, and tourists (for a detailed report on ECH’s work, see link at right to our Special Report, “A fresh start for old cities”).

Instead of evicting illegal squatters from old buildings, for example, the ECH has offered them subsidized mortgages so that they can buy an apartment in the same building—after it has been gutted and completely refurbished. Using this mechanism, the ECH has preserved 14 beautiful early 20th century residential buildings to their original splendor, while creating nearly 300 modern apartments that are now owned by middle and low-income residents.

The ECH has made a priority of creating new spaces for showcasing Quito’s rich historical heritage and its dynamic cultural life. One of its most visually stunning projects involved converting the ruins of the 16th San Juan de Dios Hospital into the Museo de la Ciudad, a world-class museum that chronicles the city’s history. More recently, a group of old university and government buildings were turned into the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, which features performance spaces, art galleries, a modern public library, workshops and a restaurant.

In order to strengthen the historic center’s role as a tourist destination, the ECH has invested in the restoration of two hotels, has helped create five upscale restaurants, and has built four high-end shopping centers that have been incorporated into historic buildings. In every case, the decorative and architectural features of the original buildings have been scrupulously restored in order to highlight the historic district’s unique ambience.

The ECH has also tackled the broader infrastructure problems that have plagued the district. Its contractors have built some 55,000 square meters of new sidewalks to improve safety and accessibility for pedestrians. The infamous shortage of downtown parking spaces has been relieved with the construction of six new multistory parking garages. Working with the municipality, the ECH has helped install new traffic lights and plan routes for a modern articulated bus system that has helped to diminish congestion and pollution. Unsightly commercial signs have been removed and electric cables have been placed underground.

Delicate negotiations. But the street vendor problem was by far the most daunting task facing the ECH. According to Gustavo Noboa, an ECH engineer who worked closely on this initiative, it took years of negotiations with the vendor associations—plus the unwavering commitment of Paco Moncayo Gallegos, Quito’s mayor—to build the new shopping complexes and arrange for the relocation of the vendors. Though most of the vendors objected to the change, municipal authorities and ECH officials listened to their concerns and found ways to build most of the new shopping complexes a short walk from where the vendors had their stalls (instead of forcibly relocating vendors to entirely new locations). In the end, what could have degenerated into an ugly confrontation was pulled off quietly and without major disruptions.

The effects on the historic district are just starting to be felt. One striking example can be seen in front of the 16th century Iglesia de la Merced, which stands at the intersection of Chile and Cuenca streets. Two years ago, the entire intersection was so crammed with canvas-covered vendor stalls that it was almost impossible to see the church entrance, to say nothing of driving through. Today the vendors have been moved into the new Centro Comercial “Granada” in a refurbished building across the street from the church. As a result, la Merced’s magnificent stone portal is again visible, a sunny plaza in front of the church has been reclaimed for pedestrians, and more shoppers than ever can look for bargains.

Throughout the historic district, the cumulative effect of the shopping complexes has been to create attractive, pedestrian-friendly boulevards that make it easy to move among museums, cathedrals, restaurants and shops. Though Quito’s historic center has still not reached the critical mass of commercial and residential investment necessary to finance its long-term preservation, that goal is now within view. At the request of the Ecuadorian government, the IDB is preparing a loan to help finance a second phase of the ECH’s activities with the goal of consolidating these initial investments and ensuring that they become financially self-sustaining.

 

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