Casco Viejo

Costa del Este
Panama City, Panama 

Casco Viejo - San Felipe - Casco Antiguo

September 2007

Ten years ago this month Panama City's three hundred year old historic district, Casco Antiguo, was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). At the time, few imagined the impending boom that would so radically change the surrounding city skyline.

Today, with tower cranes crowding the nearby shores, residents of the historic district shudder to think what might have happened had their beloved 100 acre peninsula not been protected. "In 1994 a developer tried to build a high rise on the best site in the neighborhood," says long time resident and architect, Sebastian Paniza. "Imagine what would have happened by now."

The World Heritage Site designation and the accompanying Panamanian legislation was actually the culmination of many years of effort by a small but dedicated group of Panamanians who treasured the district's cultural significance and understood the consequences of leaving its fate to the markets. Many of those who took up the original fight, including Mr. Paniza, still live in the neighborhood, running businesses that have demonstrated the compatibility of progress and historic preservation.

But from the point of view of the residents, the protections are not just about saving pretty buildings, they also maintain the neighborhood's essential character as a pedestrian-oriented old quarter. "There is something special about the human scale of a historic district," maintains Alan Winters, a 4-year Casco resident. "It's not so dense that you're anonymous, but not so spread out that you are isolated." This "human scale" is a function of the protection scheme, which dictates that volumes must stay as they were designed before the automobile age--principally two and three story buildings separated by relatively narrow streets.

This old world charm can be seen on every corner, where contrasts seem to curiously coexist. Residents in Casco Antiguo appear to have a unique vision for the eclectic: an international community that balances the demand for high-end restoration with the needs of the existing population. Both by attitude and by law, the district is trying to establish itself on a national level, as a model sustainable development and social responsibility.

Many hope that this model demonstrated in Casco Antiguo will help set the standard for elsewhere in Panama, where tourism niches are just beginning to develop. "It would be dangerous for Panama tourism to go mainstream," believes Matt Landau, owner of Los Cuatro Tulipanes , a boutique hotel situated in the heart of the old quarter. "Cookie-cutter resorts and amusement park-type attractions are fine for a while, but in the end they're all humdrum. We believe true travelers want to experience new and interesting things on every visit, and in the Casco, our guests are really intrigued by that sense the unexpected. That sense of the authentic."

Another side effect of the protections has been to ensure authenticity and limit oversupply, something that Casco Antiguo owners have come to appreciate in an age when name brand high-rise towers have begun to seem like fungible commodities. Local businesspeople such as Patrizia Pinzon of Arco Properties echo that notion. "The Casco is a very niche market. Our clients tend to be people who understand the essence of long term value and developers know that they are creating truly unique properties. Thankfully, most of the projects are quite small and the developers we work with are willing to say no to speculators because they know that good buyers create value for the entire neighborhood."

Development in Casco Antiguo is an ongoing, almost-evolutionary process and when presented with the question of just when the neighborhood will be finished, Ms. Pinzon takes a kind of optimistic offense. "I don't think we should speak in terms of "finishing". It's a city, not a museum. And great cities live forever. Great cities are always changing."

Luckily for the residents of Casco Antiguo, those changes will only go so far.


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