Ex-pats come and go to ol’ Xelatown and it’s easy to think that life goes on and things just stay the same. Your favourite veggie lady is still on the same corner in La Demo, Kevin is still patrolling the Yoga House and that pothole that always gets you is still right there waiting for you. There are larger changes at hand, however, and our lovely little Xela and especially its Centro Historico (Old Town) is undergoing some significant changes. As always, the team here at XelaWho is here with the scoop!
Xela is no industrial powerhouse, most of that stuff happens over near the capital. Xela is the second largest administrative center in Guatemala though, and that’s why every man and his dog that needs to go to the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (tax department) or the Registro General de la Propiedad (property registration department) comes from miles around to do their paperwork. Among many others, these two edifices to bureaucratic government based right opposite the Dispensa Familia near Parque Central support a horde of lawyers, accountants and mysterious offices full of people there to help you navigate the labyrinths of paperwork needed just to register your car.
Despite their overly bureaucratic nature, these offices are key source of economic lifeblood for Xela’s Centro Historico but are moving out to shiny new buildings in Xela’s rapidly developing Zona 3, Zona 9 and some other unknown areas where they don’t sell bagels or IPAs. Their move, along with many other business they support, is spurred by the long standing historical preservation building codes supported by Xela’s Oficina del Centro Historico which passed and enforces the codes with the admirable goal of making sure any new buildings built in the Old City keep with Xela’s architectural heritage. These rules essentially mean that renovations or expansions of existing building are strictly prohibited with very few exceptions. The perverse effect of these overly strict rules, however, is that it is practically impossible or ridiculously expensive for any businesses to expand an existing office or to renovate a new location.
As you’ve probably noticed – last year, a tragic fire burnt down the La Parranda block just behind Pasaje Enriquez leaving nothing but a smoldering shell and memories of messy times carving it up on the D-floor and late night stops at Rica Burger. The good news is that someone has finally taken it upon themselves to rebuild a good part of the block. San Martin Bakery to the rescue! The big time bakery is coming to Zona 1 and will rebuild most of the block so you can get your fresh baguettes and lattes. The bad news is that for many of the smaller shops that inhabited the block the cost of rebuilding is too much and they will relocate out of Zona 1.
So as the costs of building, rebuilding, renovating and expanding are too high because of building codes, the businesses that keep Zona 1 afloat will continue to relocate away. A very similar thing happened in the capital a couple of decades ago leading to significant urban decay and crime before the city decided to relax some of their building codes 9 years ago which has led to a revitalization in the city center.
Unless Xela plans to become as manicured as Antigua and attract a bunch of wealthy tourist so-and-sos, it is going to have to make it easier for the Centro Historico to become a thriving commercial area or watch it go the same way as Guatemala City’s centre did for a good couple of decades.