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Puerto Rico developments seek to build community, not just public housing

A pair of new projects seeks to reimagine underinvested sections of San Juan

Rendering of the Puerta de Tierra development in San Juan, Puerto Rico, part of a large mixed-use development reshaping an underinvested part of the island.
Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon

Puerto Rico’s current financial situation may lead casual observers to assume there isn’t much new development happening on the island. But a pair of master planned public housing development in San Juan, part the largest such affordable housing initiative in the city’s history, isn’t just moving forward. It’s breaking ground and hoping to establish a model for building communities and helping to revitalize forgotten neighborhoods.

Developed by McCormack Baron Salazar and designed by local architects from Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon, these projects, set to cost nearly $75 million, will add hundreds of new apartments and commercial spaces, with housing dedicated to mid- and low-income options. Ricardo Álvarez‐Díaz, principle at Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon, says, “this is a chance to make an impact for the next 30-40 years.”

Overhead map of the Las Gladiolas development
Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon

Part of the genesis of the project was the work of the Martin Peña Channel Land Trust, which spent the last 15 years restoring a formerly polluted 3.75-mile-long tidal channel and tropical esturary, as well as the surrounding landscape. The work, which included a master plan for the surrounding neighborhoods, earned the group a United Nations World Habitat Award.

Momentum for change increased when in 2011, the Las Gladiolas project, a series of stereotypical ‘60s high-rise public housing developments near the channel, were torn down, providing an opportunity to rethink and redesign the neighborhood. Now, developers will be able to reshape a 40-acre plot near the Milla de Oro (Golden Mile), a busy commercial strip of Ponce de León Avenue.

“When it came down, it was like removing a veil,” says Álvarez‐Díaz. “There was this wonderful community hiding behind it that was ignored for so many years.”

Rendering of a townhome in Las Gladiolas, featuring European and Classical architectural elements.
Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon

The new plan for Las Gladiolas, expected to be complete in 2018, replaces the cold Modernist towers with something more open and community oriented. Low-rise homes and apartments, three- to four-story structures built around European-style plazas, will touch on Spanish and Classical architectural elements, such as Juliet balconies and mannerist detailings, while boasting green and sustainable features including rooftop solar panels.

Gladiolas will be built in concert with Puerta de Tierra (“Door to the land”), a development roughly 10 miles away that will be completed next year consisting of 174 mixed-income residences in 12 buildings spread over nine acres, which links an under-developed neighborhood with historic Old San Juan. A similar human-scale planning approach informed plans for Puerta de Tierra, bridging surrounding neighborhoods while nodding to the area’s history of Art Deco design. This site is also the former location of El Falansterio, a 1937 modernist public housing project, the island’s first, that serves as a model of design and development.

For Álvarez‐Díaz, the real key to the success of these projects is community planning. By lowering density and scale, cutting the number of units from nearly 700, and getting rid of the faceless tall towers, the new developments will have a closer relationship with the surrounding environment. The mixed-use projects integrates not just different income levels, but also commercial space that’s meant to be leased to entrepreneurs and business owners in the community. Las Gladiolas, situated near the center of San Juan, offers an ideal location and economic advantages to new residents and retailers.

The original Las Gladiolas buildings, which opened in 1969.

This initiative can overcome previous missteps in federal and local housing policy, Álvarez‐Díaz believes, showcasing a sustainable way to create better affordable housing.

“For me, it was important to really get to know the community, to understand their concerns and how they were ignored by the government for years,” he says. “They were skeptical. But I want them to look at these buildings and say, ‘this isn’t affordable housing, this is like any other housing.’”