Trio of architects draft plan to preserve flavor of old Havana

Jan. 22--Architect Nicolas Quintana has long feared that when Cuba opens up to free-market forces, the first thing to go will be Havana's urban character. He worries that unchecked development could overwhelm the nearly 488-year-old city with unsuitable and out-of-scale construction.

The worst could happen if Havana isn't prepared to handle the building intensity a market-oriented economy might create, says Quintana, a professor at Florida International University who served on Cuba's National Planning Board in the 1950s.

So for the past 2 ½ years Quintana has partnered with two architects to create what he calls "a vision" for future development in Havana. The two others in the project are FIU Dean of Architecture Juan Antonio Bueno and architect Felipe J. Prestamo.

Two Miami-based developers, Sergio Pino's Century Builders and home builder Lennar, paid $325,000 to bankroll the study.

The trio of architects are now putting the finishing touches on the plan, which they intend to display in a forthcoming -- but still unscheduled -- exhibition. They also hope to publish a book by the end of the year.

What they hope to avoid in the Havana of the future is the type of suburban sprawl and traffic-clogged roads that have plagued many parts of South Florida.

"Havana doesn't have a Kendall now, but it could have it," Quintana said, referring to the rambling Miami suburb criticized for poor planning.

If Cuba's economy opens up, it is widely expected that private developers will descend en masse -- not only to try to make a financial killing but to address an acute lack of housing in Cuba. Last year the National Housing Institute report said the country needs to build 50,000 houses for a decade to meet its housing shortage.

In the process, a city admired for quaint neighborhoods and inspired architecture could be radically changed for the worse.

HINT OF THE PLAN

Bueno said he and his colleagues are keeping their recommendations under wraps, but they revealed a little bit.

To retain Havana's urban character, they suggest that density for new residential projects be 30 units per acre. By contrast, metropolitan Miami is 9 to 10 units per acre, said Quintana.

Uses are to be mixed, with homes and offices sitting atop shops in mid-rise buildings. And to accommodate more building, their proposals call for the city to expand its street grid system outward and follow the plan of dense, urban building.

The plan firmly rejects gated subdivisions and setting aside land for tracts of single-family homes or strip malls. "You won't see a shopping center the way you see it here with surface parking facilities all around it," Quintana said.

Meanwhile, proposed green spaces and expanses along waterways would be out of bounds for building. An above-ground streetcar is also proposed, Quintana said.

LONG TIME, NO SEE

The study, launched in 2004, was carried out despite the fact none of the three architects has actually set foot on the island in years. Quintana and Bueno said they are philosophically opposed to going to the island under the Castro regime. Prestamo could not be reached for comment.

Their lack of on-the-ground research has raised questions where three architects who haven't strolled down a Havana street in some time are best-suited for making planning recommendations. There's also the matter of the independence of a study funded by developers.

But Bueno responded that their recommendations will be published for all to read, rather than solely for the benefit of the two builders. He also says the trio consulted Cuba government data to better understand issues such as pollution and acknowledged that the government data has been useful.

Plus, Bueno said, online tools such as Google Earth have provided satellite images of Havana that are good enough to understand the current state of the city.

"We are not trying to impose a master plan on anyone," said Bueno. "We look at this more as providing a vision that can be discussed."

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