Santa Ana’s Suburban Urban Vision

Santa Ana is a charming town on the western outskirts of San José.

However, most places with a Santa Ana address aren’t actually in Santa Ana, and they aren’t charming.

President Laura Chinchilla’s condominium for example bears a Santa Ana address.

In reality, it’s a gated community on a highway a few kilometers outside of town.   No wonder she drove a Mercedes Benz before she was elected president.   She can’t after all walk to anything from where she lives, and anyone who lived where she does would want to get the hell out of the house a lot too.  She might as well have a nice car.

The oral surgeon with whom my dentist is associated has an office with a Santa Ana address.  In reality it’s in a strip mall off a highway near a Taco Bell.   Bus access to it is so convoluted that I took a cab.  Someone robbed me while I was there.   I don’t know who the suburban thugs were, only that a smiling security guard happily returned my wallet to me empty.

But Santa Ana itself is nice little town—lots of small shops, friendly people, easy to navigate on foot.  It has everything an expat eager to escape the auto-dependent sprawl of the great suburban north might want.

Soon though, the city of Santa Ana won’t be so nice.  Rocca S.A.  plans to build an entirely new 30,000 square meter “downtown” for Santa Ana  complete with movie theaters, hotels, office buildings, and you name it.

Let’s assume that the developers know what they’re doing and their project, called City Place, will be successful.   Let’s also assume that their promised “modern and contemporary architecture” will prove popular.   In this best-case scenario, the only loss will be the replacement of charming Santa Ana with more suburban-style chain stores nestled in massive parking lots.

But this is to assume that the developers know what they’re doing.   Some don’t—and none do over the long haul.  The best of these self-contained monster developments succeed for perhaps a generation, after they destroy the downtowns they replaced, and then they become abandoned blights themselves.

Desirable towns develop piecemeal, with new buildings erected next to old ones, new uses found for old buildings, and the whole presenting an unfolding drama of ongoing history.   It’s in the juxtaposition of the old and the new (there needs to be new too) that charm is retained while economic vibrancy is realized.

Whenever a developer builds the whole shebang at once with one master plan, though, you can count on the hubris eviscerating charm—and sooner or later economic vibrancy too.

Yet, as Santa Ana goes, so goes the country.

San José itself is barely holding on, and only doing as well as it is because it is still filled by people too poor to buy cars and join their suburban betters on the outskirts.

Indeed, while PLN presidential candidate and former longtime mayor of San José, Johnny Araya, can be credited with supporting some high-rise in-town residential development and pedestrian boulevards in San José, the suspicion is strong that he was living on borrowed time.   Again, the pedestrian boulevards only succeed as well as they do because most Ticos still transfer buses downtown.  The influx of poor Nicas selling their wares also helps to fill these pedestrian boulevards.  In other ways, like his commuter-friendly traffic arteries and his own residence on the outskirts, Araya doesn’t give the impression of having a farsighted urban vision.

Or, consider Barrio Chino—and whoever the hell is responsible for that urban disaster.  There’s not even a Chinese restaurant in this new government-decreed Chinatown.   Instead, it is a low-income Latino neighborhood teetering perilously close to becoming a crime-infested slum.

Someone in Costa Rica needs to start understanding how good cities and towns work, and preserve the ones they have before it’s too late.

But the prognosis looks dim.  As Santa Ana goes, so may go the country.

Kenneth E. Morris

Kenneth E. Morris taught at various colleges and universities in the US before moving to Costa Rica in 2006, where he is now a permanent resident. His most recent book is Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation (Chicago Review Press).

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of Inside Costa Rica or its staff.

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    • Timothy Williams

      A very warm welcome to our first columnist, and a great first. Thank you, Mr. Morris. Expect Mr. Morris’s contributions every Monday beginning after Christmas. Would you like to be a columnist? Left, right, green or red, you are welcome to apply. Drop a note to with a quick bio and cover letter and tell us why you should be an ICR columnist. (We should mention that we actually pay our columnists, unlike most of our competitors.) Would everyone please give Mr. Morris a warm ICR greeting, for having the guts to express himself as a columnist? It does take guts to express yourself in such a public forum. Welcome, Mr. Morris.