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Monday, May 20, 2019

Rio Piedras: revitalizing beyond their wildest dreams

On May 1, 2019 Lambda Alpha International (LAI) hosted the Rio Piedras Professional Advisory Delegation (PAD) in partnership with the Fideicomiso para el Desarrollo de Río Piedras (FDRP). The PAD was a precursor to the LAI Puerto Rico (PR) Land Economics Weekend (LEW) where the new PR Chapter was chartered and local members were initiated during the LEW Welcome Reception.

LAI is an honorary society for the advancement of land economics. LAI provides a forum for the study and advancement of land economics where the "winnowing and sifting" of ideas takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Operating through a network of twenty-eight global chapters, LAI provides a variety of programs and forums for its members to share information critical to understanding important land-use issues. The IMPACT Blog article, Lambda Alpha International Atlanta Chapter: growing membership, influence and impact, introduces LAI along with its designated purposes.

Twice per year chapters sponsor "Weekend Experiences" giving members an opportunity to meet and learn about land-economic issues in cities throughout the world. Open to LAI members and their guests, the LEWs address wider international, national and regional issues and include project tours within the host city.

Formal PAD presentations in process
With a wide range of expertise in ownership, management, regulation and conservation of land, as well as its development, redevelopment and preservation, LAI members are respected global industry leaders. The PAD was an opportunity for LAI members to share their expertise with the Rio Piedras Development Trust (FDRP for its Spanish acronym).

Around 50 LAI delegates traveled early to the PR LEW to participate in the Rio Piedras PAD. According to LAI International Vice-President and PAD Executive Team Lead Cassandra Francis, "We hope this initial LAI PAD will serve to strengthen our connections with the community of Rio Piedras and allow LAI to be part of the community's future renaissance."

Fideicomiso para el Desarrollo de Río Piedras (FDRP)
A May 2016 Amendment to the Special Law for the Rehabilitation of Río Piedras (Law 75-1995) extends the validity of the special incentives granted to the FDRP until December 31, 2020. The original law created the FDRP that serves as a fiduciary agent with the power to acquire disused or abandoned structures, lands and plots for the reconstruction and development of affordable housing, businesses, and nonprofit organizations in Río Piedras.

PAD attendees on walking tour
Managed by a local board, the FDRP is currently obtaining its IRS 501(c) 3 non-profit status. The Community Association of Río Piedras, a community leadership group representing eight of the twelve Rio Piedras barrios, oversees a series of organizations dedicated Rio Piedras' redevelopment. Next in the leadership hierarchy is the Advisory Board for the Development of Río Piedras, a technical group of professionals and lay barrio members; the FDRP follows the Advisory Board in the hierarchy.

The FDRP was created to have an entity solely dedicated to the following efforts / objectives:
  • Establish initiatives to recover structures and lands, disused or abandoned sites, for the development of affordable housing, commerce, and non-profit organizations, in Río Piedras.
  • Acquire property for the benefit of the community of Río Piedras.
  • Facilitate the reconstruction and assessment of urban spaces, in accordance with the public policy established by Law 75-1995, and development plans and land use adopted by the Planning Board for the community of Río Piedras.
  • Acquire land and vacant lots to build affordable housing or for any other use necessary, for the benefit of the community of Río Piedras.
Members of the FDRP were selected by the Community Association of Río Piedras and include representatives from the following sectors: residents, students, commerce, other community groups as well as 2 experts. The following FDRP mission and vision guide the FDRP efforts:
Rio Piedras street market
  • Vision: To be a model of sustainability, focused on the development of the community of Río Piedras, with citizen participation and equity as the philosophical basis for urban transformation.
  • Mission: To acquire, manage and preserve properties that contribute to the development of Río Piedras, to advance the principles and objectives laid down in Law 75-1995 and its Plan of Integral Development.
Over the past years, the FDRP worked diligently on the development of a strategic plan, the creation of alliances, the consecution of operational funds, and the acquisition of properties as part of an agreement with the Municipality of San Juan, among other things. As part of the dissemination strategies, the FDRP funded the community newspaper of El Roble, a bimonthly newspaper that is distributed within the Rio Piedras communities.

FDPR embraces the following Rio Piedras Quality of Life Vision:
A safe, clean, walkable, mixed income community that welcomes students, families and people of all ages to its thriving barrios that are strongly linked to an active commercial center. A Río Piedras well-connected to the larger San Juan community as a center of unique shopping, education and entertainment
Rio Piedras - history & current scenario
Originally its own municipality, Rio Piedras was a settlement along the Piedras River founded in 1714 with agricultural roots where sugar, cotton and coffee were the main crops. The University of Puerto was founded in 1903 within the Rio Piedras proper. Today the university's main campus as well as the botanical gardens remain an integral component to the Rio Piedras community.

Plaza del Mercado, the largest
market of its kind on the island
In 1951 Rio Piedras was consolidated within the municipality of San Juan. Currently Rio Piedras has twelve barrios. The following eight barrios that connect with the commercial center and/or are adjacent to the University of Puerto Rico campus are the focus of the FDRP: Blondet, Buen Consejo, Captetilo, Centro Urbano, Garcia Ubarri, Mora, Santa Rita, and Venezuela.

Once thriving, Rio Piedras was a central transportation hub with a vibrant commercial center. Yet, over the decades, PR's unstable economic status coupled with a population leaving the island contributed to the demise of Rio Piedras' commercial and residential vitality.

Rio Piedras remains a central commercial community yet is impacted by challenges in common with PR as well as unique circumstances.

Rio Piedras - challenges
A street scene along
Ponce de Leon
Common with many global urban environments, Rio Piedras is challenged with a homeless population, crime, safety issues, and deteriorated buildings due to lack of maintenance. Common with Puerto Rico as a whole, Rio Piedras experienced economic strife coupled with a significant population decline over the past decade plus.

According to the PR Report Population Continues to Decline in Puerto Rico post, the Census Report states the PR population declined by 69,343, a 3% drop, between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017. Though deaths exceed births on the island, the overriding factor contributing to the island's population decline is citizens relocating to the mainland United States, predominantly Florida.

Since Hurricane Maria, more than 239,000 people moved to Florida with the Florida Puerto Rican population topping one million. When Hurricane Maria struck, the best estimate of PR's population was 3.3 million.

An estimated population for the eight barrios included in the Rio Piedras Quality of Life Program is 7,000. Though not substantiated with statistics, the Rio Piedras population is aging.

Puerto Rico's overall precarious economic status is a significant challenge for Rio Piedras' redevelopment plans.

A long ago closed Singer store
Though accessible by the Tren Urbano (see below), Rio Piedras is not easily accessible via car. As San Juan grew and improved the city's infrastructure, historically strong Rio Piedras access roads were bypassed through the development of larger scale arterials and freeways.

Vacant buildings along with structures requiring rehabilitation are a challenge for revitalization. Of the 5,461 available housing units in the FDRP's eight barrios, 19% are owner-occupied, 55% are tenant-occupied, and 26% are vacant. Most vacant units are the result of foreclosure by the bank holding the mortgage or delinquent taxes. Due to Puerto Rico's traditional property-transfer system within family lineage, it is often difficult to obtain clear title to the property.

Rio Piedras - assets
Though the challenges may seem daunting on the surface, Rio Piedras is a community blessed with many solid assets. Numerous local assets are listed below.

University of Puerto Rico
Located on a 289-acre campus, the University of Puerto Rico's main campus in Rio Piedras hosts 18,000 students, 80% undergraduate and 20% graduate students, and bestows approximately 3,000 degrees per year. Though there are dormitories, the majority of students commute to the university.

There is excellent potential to partner with the university on a variety of projects for mutual benefit between the college and the community.

Plaza del Mercado
Fresh market produce
The largest market of its kind on the island, Plaza del Mercado is known for its farm-fresh produce, an excellent, reasonably priced food court, eclectic gift shops, and in the afternoons into the evening the live music. The market is an excellent venue to immerse into the local Puerto Rican culture.

La Milagrosa
Once a beautiful Catholic church accompanied by a private-school campus, La Milagrosa is now an abandoned large tract of land within the Rio Piedras Centro Urbano barrio. Located down the street from the Plaza del Mercado, La Milagrosa property represents an economic and energetic void within the local business district.

Yet La Milagrosa's abandoned status is filled with tremendous opportunity within the economic revitalization of Rio Piedras. The close proximity to the University of Puerto Rico's main campus offers potential for a university | La Milagrosa connection.

Iglesia de La Milagrosa
According to the October 2016 Primera Hora article, Art gives life to La Milagrosa, La Milagrosa campus closed in May 2009. Though the local community struggled to keep the school open, the Catholic Church permanently closed the school's doors. Subsequently, the campus served as a hospital for addicts of controlled substances and a shelter for homeless citizens.

Via Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto's and Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto González Nieves' negotiations, the municipality acquired the church and school campus for $2.6 million. The intention was for the closed church and school to resurface within the Rio Piedras community as an art museum, a fine-arts school, and a housing complex for veterans.

"We decided to make a permanent art exhibition area here. They are going to have different exhibitions that respect the historical character and maintain the mysticism that this is no longer a church, but for many it remains a temple," explained Cruz Soto.

Unfortunately, the art complex did not come to fruition and the La Milagrosa once again is abandoned awaiting its next contribution to the Rio Piedras community.

The church's name, the Iglesia de La Milagrosa (Church of Our Miraculous Lady), beholds the property's potential to anchor Rio Piedras' re-emergence to strong economic vitality.

Tren Urbano
Rio Piedras Tren Urbano station
Opened on December 17, 2004, the Tren Urbano is a 10.7 mile rapid rail-transit system with sixteen stations, some above ground and others underground. Rio Piedras boasts two underground stations, one at the University of Puerto and another across from the Rio Piedras Plaza.

Though transportation via car is a challenge, Rio Piedras residents may easily take the train to the financial district or thirteen other destinations for work or social occasions. San Juan residents may easily access Rio Piedras for shopping, dining, entertainment, cultural events, or other reasons.

Creative Spirit
Within the Rio Piedras community, an empowering creative spirit is evident by the plethora of amazing volunteer-street art. On one street corner, a lovely golden bird is the backdrop for an ATM machine. Less than a block away, a talented artist painted an eclectic purple flower in a rustic corner within a rundown building. Thus, local artists share their talent and spirit freely to brighten the community, literally and figuratively. The strong creative spirit is central for the community revitalization underway.

Volunteer street art
Eleven years ago FDRP President Cristina Miranda Palacios "walked her talk" as a social and urban planner and purchased her first home in Rio Piedras. Cristina knows that a stressed community is revived by local residents who live, work, play, shop, and build bonds with neighbors. At the time, Cristina's daughter was five years old; now at 16 years old, she loves her community along with a profound sense of belonging.

Cristina understood her home purchase was in a community that required significant work. Over the years, Cristina witnessed substantial neighborhood improvements yet knows many daunting challenges remain. In Cristina's words:
"The work that was completed with LAI during the PAD week will be instrumental for all of our efforts. We are excited about the work completed to date, and look forward to continue working on behalf of our community. While the road is steep we have the most important elements: will and commitment and a community that is active and engaged." 
Professional Advisory Delegation (PAD)
When LAI and the FDRP decided to partner on the first PAD in Rio Piedras, the two organizations developed and executed a three-step process:

Step One - LAI leadership met with FDRP executives in November 2018 to develop a PAD plan that utilized LAI member expertise and benefited the community in the short and long runs.

PAD Executive Team: Mel, Les & Jim
Step Two - LAI PAD Executive Team members, including Les Pollock, Mel Freeman and Jim Musbach, traveled to meet with the FDRP in February 2019 for a week-long intensive strategy session. In the meetings, the group identified strategic actions and projects to improve the community’s overall quality of life, and to respond to problems and challenges further complicated by Hurricanes Irma and María.

Per the prepared PAD document: the work session resulted in a draft Quality of Life Program aimed at identifying key strategies and projects to address economic development, housing, infrastructure, health, public safety and social services problems within the community.

Step Three - The PAD Workshop was held in conjunction with the PR LEW on Wednesday, May 1. Designed to engage interested LAI membership, PAD attendees were educated in formal presentations, along with bus and walking tours, on Rio Piedras' history, current scenario, work-in-progress, and the Quality of Life program. Split into five discussion groups, the LAI delegates recommended refinements and implementation action points. Intentions were to suggest how the identified projects may be used by the community to resolve the current challenges.

Volunteer art brightens the
Rio Piedra community
One of the overriding suggestions was Rio Piedras create a branding campaign that emphasized art/culture as well as integration with the nearby student population. As part of the branding, it was suggested to "clean-up" deteriorated buildings with inexpensive cosmetic treatments and emphasize the abundant art-deco design. The branding and clean-up will aid in building community pride as well as attracting investors for redevelopment.

While building the Rio Piedras brand and accomplishing the cosmetic clean-up, the delegates emphasized creating an inventory of available property, including location, square feet, structural integrity, and importantly the title status. With the property inventory, FDRP will be in a position to develop and take action on a strategic plan.

Once published, the formal LAI | FDRP Quality of Life PAD Report prepared by Les Pollack will be available for download.

The Elemental Impact FB album, Rio Piedras Professional Advisory Delegation, is a pictorial recap of the walking tours and the formal PAD session.

A tenacious spirit intertwined with an innate creative heart stages the Rio Piedras community for tremendous success beyond their wildest dreams. After all, the Church of Our Miraculous Lady calls Rio Piedras her home and is well prepared to bestow miracles upon her beloved community.