Old San Juan’s urban topography is about to undergo a slight tweaking over the next couple of years.
San Cristobal Apartments, a gargantuan building dating to 1912, is headed for demolition due to its seriously deteriorated condition and in its place Fernando L. Sumaza & Co. Inc. will develop a new rental building.
One thing will remain unchanged: the new San Cristobal Apartments, like its predecessor, will be a Section 8 building so as to maintain the “integration of social classes” so vital to old San Juan, said Cristina Sumaza, business development director.
The cost of the project is set at $19.4 million and it will generate 250 direct and indirect jobs.
“This is a stimulus to the economy and the construction sector,” said Sumaza.
Demolition, expected to begin sometime in April, should take about four months followed by construction lasting 24 months. West Contractor will handle both phases.
All 53 families living in the building will be relocated in April at company expense. They were given the option to move to Las Americas Apartments, a Section 8 building in Hato Rey, or to use their Section 8 voucher to rent an apartment of their choice.
Under this program, the federal government subsidizes the rent of low-income households through direct payments to landlords equivalent to the difference between what the tenant pays based on income and the unit’s market rate.
The project, both in terms of the demolition and construction, is quite complex because of its location on a steep incline across from the entrance to Fort San Cristobal.
“It is a huge challenge,” said Architect Fernando Lugo, who was tasked with designing the new building. The challenge extends to all facets of the project, from the structure’s design, which had to harmonize with adjoining historical structures, to the process of demolition and construction, which will affect traffic along a major entry road.
For people driving in and out of Old San Juan the project is certain to pose inconveniences though Sumaza said minimizing the discomfort is a top priority.
A former hotel, the nine-story building rises along Norzagaray Street and straddles Luna and Sol Streets. Norzagaray is a popular route for tourists while Luna and Sol offer an alternate exit and entryway into the old city, respectively.
Community meetings will be scheduled at the beginning of March with local residents, staff from the U.S. National Park Service which oversees the forts of El Morro and San Cristobal, city and police representatives to iron out the logistics of closing the street to traffic with a minimum of pain to everyone.
One option could be for construction work to be carried out very early in the morning before heavy traffic builds up. For now, “there are no final and firm answers,” she said.
In his design for the new building, Lugo emulates the clean lines of old colonial homes but uses height, color and window alignment to add visual interest.
Multiple lines of windows give the structure a streamlined, modern look that is further enhanced by a touch of bright paint along the interior side of the windows.
It will have 50 one and two-bedroom units, three fewer than in the present structure.To avoid the sense of a uniform mass, Lugo’s new design features alternate heights. The building rises five stories high on Luna Street and eight stories on Sol street.
Heavily permitted project
Lugo said meeting the tough requirements of the State Historic Preservation Office and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture hiked the cost of the project, which required getting permits from 18 agencies. All the permits are in hand, he said.
He said renovating the existing structure was not possible due to the serious structural problems uncovered by a 2013 assessment. Plus, given its age, the building does not comply with current safety and security codes.
Recently, big chunks from the building fell onto parked cars below.
Funding for the project comes through several federal programs that, according to Sumaza, offer opportunities to Puerto Rico’s battered construction sector.
The Low Income Housing Tax Credits Program will help pay 70 percent of the project with the Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) funding another 20 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the cost will be financed through a U.S. bank.
“We’re in the process of finalizing everything,” Sumaza said.
Fernando L. Sumaza & Co. Inc. is a general partner and management agent for 21 affordable housing projects in Puerto Rico, including San Cristobal Apartments and San Sebastian Apartments, a 25-unit Section 8 rental building also in Old San Juan.