viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2008

The New Old Mexico

November 21, 2008
New York Times

IT had been four years since I last saw San Miguel de Allende, the 16th-century colonial Mexican hill town that shelters a happy crowd of American retirees and part-time residents. I was curious about what time, trendiness and progress had done to this place beloved for its preserved Spanish colonial architecture and aura of timeless charm. Now, sitting in the jardín — the loud, leafy central plaza — I began to deduce a complex answer.

A few weeks before my recent visit, San Miguel had been named a Unesco World Heritage Site, and at a nearby table, a group of Americans were buzzing about that success. Yet from the park bench where I sat, I could see something else that was new: on the facade of one of the carefully preserved old downtown buildings was the unmistakable logo of Starbucks.

This, in a nutshell, is San Miguel these days: balancing in a moment of almost exquisite equilibrium between new and old. But how long can it last? Can the Mexican residents, and the American expatriates who make up about 10 percent of the population, continue to have it both ways?

Talk to people around town, and you will find opinions mixed. For Jane Sallis, 65, who moved to San Miguel nearly six years ago after retiring from a technology business in Seattle , the current collision of 21st and 17th centuries is just one more turn in the path for a whimsical and eccentric town. “Change is inevitable,” she said. “Starbucks? The Mexicans here wanted it. It’s their town. San Miguel can handle it.”

But Ricardo Vidargas, 53, a photographer who grew up in San Miguel and is heavily involved in historic preservation, told me: “San Miguel is held by a little string right now. We are straining the very things that made people want to move here.”

San Miguel’s cobblestone-and-cathedral charisma has attracted Americans as early as the 1950s, when its well-regarded art institute offered to honor the G.I. Bill. But in the past decade or so, a steady stream of American immigration has turned into a surge, and with it have come trappings of a modern city. In the past two decades, the population has doubled to 140,000; real estate prices in the historic centro district have, in some cases, tripled. Traffic has become, at times, intolerably clotted and dangerous. On the outskirts, something that looks very much like suburbanization is taking place. There’s a shopping center with a multiscreen movie theater, a Mega superstore and a Wal-Mart operation on the way. Along the so-called Golden Corridor north of town, half a dozen horse ranches have been subdivided into gated communities offering haciendas for $350,000 to $750,000 with amenities like golf courses, spas and high-speed Internet — even assisted living.

On the other hand, expatriate life has retained much of the simplicity, modesty and tranquillity that first attracted Americans. Real estate boom or no, you can still get a lot more second home for the dollar here than in Miami or Santa Fe or Aspen . Local residents and real estate agents say that real estate taxes run about 10 percent of what they do stateside. Out-of-pocket costs are half or less, depending on how simply you want to live. And no amount of growth can change the appealing climate: at around 6,500 feet, San Miguel has temperatures in the 60s and 70s pretty much year-round, and a full day without sunshine is rare.

Joanie Bercal, 61, who runs one of the town’s largest real estate companies, Allende Properties, and has lived in San Miguel for 20 years, thinks the quaint and the new not only can get along, but have also begun to synergize.

“San Miguel has never been more beautiful,” she said, pointing out the refurbishing and lighting of the town’s many colonial churches, the burial of electrical wiring and other sprucing up that took place because the town had the money (read American dollars) to buff itself up for the Unesco judges. “And I challenge you to find another town of 140,000 where you have this much going on culturally.”

It’s a fair observation. While my wife and I were in San Miguel, an international short-film festival occupied half a dozen venues, the play “Shimmer” was in town on tour, a new bistro opened and there was a gala for a local charity. There was a time when Americans retired to San Miguel for its glacial pace and tranquillity. These days, it’s more like a high-end summer camp for aging boomers.

“It’s like Berkeley for retired people,” said Sally Osbon, 55, who, with her husband, Jim, 64, lives half the year in San Francisco and half in San Miguel. The Osbons, whose three-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house is at the edge of the centro, enjoy not only the climate and the golf, but also what Ms. Osbon called the town’s “bohemian feel.”

When I first heard about San Miguel in the mid-’90s, the knowledge was shared by a friend as a precious secret. Soon afterward, on our first morning there, my wife and I ambled through the most guileless and sweet-natured place we’d ever seen, authentic right down to the donkey-drawn carts carrying water and firewood. Its appearance of being unaffected by its own beauty gave it a quality that was irresistible.

The price was right, too. We stayed at a commodious one-bedroom guest house of a large hacienda with spectacular views of downtown and full maid service for less than $100 a night. And at that time, if you wanted to buy, you could, as a good friend did, purchase a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home for around $100,000.

The pricing bubble really began to inflate in 2004, real estate agents say, and now, although prices have begun to level off, largely because of the lending crisis in the United States, it’s hard to buy into the middle of town for less than $300,000, and that would be for 1,500 square feet or less. “Up the hill,” to the east of town, the winding alleys previously occupied by ruins and stray burros are now lined with huge haciendas that have broken the seven-figure barrier many times over.

The upscaling has been a mixed blessing. A huge, six-story, 32-unit condominium development in the area called El Caracol was so intrusive that Mr. Vidargas and his group, Basta Ya (enough already), protested its groundbreaking and got it delayed and redesigned somewhat from its “Mexico City modern” facade to something a bit more colonial. Still, its scale alone makes it look like something that doesn’t belong.

On the other hand, Bill and Pepe Anderson’s nearby 9,000-square-foot, three-level, stone, steel and glass retirement home on five acres of rugged escarpment overlooking the town seems to fit right in, big as it is. It is at least $3 million worth of house, to be sure, but the couple — he is a retired investment banker and she is a retired interior designer — took such care with its design and landscaping that far from encroaching on San Miguel’s priceless colonial integrity, it actually seems to enhance it.

“The Americans have been very sympathetic to our cause,” Mr. Vidargas said, adding that behind development, “in a lot of cases, it is Mexican money.” (Both El Caracol and the Starbucks are Mexican projects.)

But if you can’t afford seven figures, can you still find a deal? Yes said, Michael Cleary, 53, a Washington-based management consultant and developer who owns personal and commercial property in San Miguel. “You just have to look harder than you used to and probably a bit further out of the centro.”

Mr. Cleary has performed this feat twice in the past five years. In 2003, he found and bought a 12-by-80-foot slip of property that had formerly been a store on a street just outside the centro, gutted it and spent $250,000 creating a two-and-a-half story home with two large bedrooms, three baths, full kitchen, living area and roof terrace with a dazzling 360-degree view of the city and surrounding mountains. In 2005, he found an oblong-shaped couple of acres in the centro, which he developed as La Fuente, a gated community of 21 homes priced from about $650,000 to $900,000.

“We tailored the development to fit the land and the existing architecture,” said Mr. Cleary, who now has three units occupied and two more sold. “It’s what you must do here.”

Many expats get their feet wet by leasing shelter for a month or a summer a few times before they buy — a time-honored pattern. John McLeod, 58, and his wife, Elaine, 62, followed it 18 years ago, after getting their first look at San Miguel at the behest of friends who “talked us into coming for Christmas,” Mr. McLeod said. They soon returned, rented for a month and were smitten. “We decided to build a part-time home here, and by the time we were halfway through building,” Ms. McLeod said, “we decided to move” — full-time, that is, from their home in Sarasota, Fla., to San Miguel.

Prices are higher now than they were in that era, but you can still rent anything from a huge hacienda for several thousand dollars a month to something like the three-level, two-bedroom, three-bath condo we stayed in this past summer for $790 a week. It was comfortable and had terrific views of the mountains from the third-level roof patio.

So what will become of San Miguel de Allende? Ben Calderoni, 71, a longtime high-end real estate broker, thinks it may already be overbuilt and that some planned developments may not survive. He also mentioned a natural curb: “San Miguel has limited water.”

Mr. Anderson thinks all will be fine until “we start getting celebrities and bodyguards and black Suburbans and all.” Thus far, San Miguel has avoided the celebrity-paparazzi syndrome. It’s been rumored that the actor Antonio Banderas and the former NBC anchor Stone Phillips have bought or will buy haciendas, but thus far they can only be counted as visitors. The main celebrity now calling San Miguel home is the former “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen, who owns a large horse ranch outside town and blows his trumpet a bit with a local band in town.

All eyes are presently focused on the largest new development, the ambitious Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, a resort and spa on one of the largest (14 acres) plots of undeveloped land remaining in the centro, with a section of high-end residences called Artesana Rosewood. Some fear that this single development, scheduled for completion in 2010, could catapult San Miguel from retirement center to resort. The casitas start at 1,800 square feet. The 27 offered in the first phase (a total of 120 are planned) are offered at “under $1 million to $3 million,” the developers say.. Artesana’s director of sales, Tyler Niess, said the developer has made every effort to create what is essentially a whole new neighborhood, replacing a shambling old 1950s hotel and grounds and flowing from the architecture and street life that is already there.

Even if San Miguel can keep its precious look intact, can it maintain its elusive, mystical feel? Only time will tell. But it could be that San Miguel’s high profile, especially as a Unesco site, will allow it to achieve a symbiotic coexistence between antiquity and modernity.

“We’re now a recognized world treasure,” Mr. Vidargas said. “That’s something to live up to.”

Jennifer Szymaszek contributed reporting.

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