Giampiero Riccio

In Panama City, a plan to build a marine viaduct around a colonial-era neighborhood has residents up in arms

In a city better known for its canal, what started as a grassroots campaign against a new highway project has vaulted to the forefront of the national media. The debate is centered on a marine viaduct less than two kilometers long called the Cinta Costera which, if completed, would envelop the city’s San Felipe neighborhood in six lanes of traffic.

The neighborhood in question is far from your run-of-the-mill barrio. Founded by the Spanish Crown in 1673, San Felipe – locally known as the Casco Antiguo (Old Quarter) – is a charming colonial-era UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The Casco’s cobblestone streets, Spanish colonial architecture and majestic plazas have garnered a considerable amount of international acclaim in the past 10 years, attracting ex-pats and tourists, as well as the Panamanian avant-garde to redevelop what has historically been the city’s political and cultural nucleus.

But this historic neighborhood has also become ground zero of the city's exploding traffic crisis. Given its high density and central location, the Casco Antiguo impedes the flow of traffic between the city’s burgeoning western suburbs and the modern central business district to the east. Initially, Brazilian contractor Odebrecht was tapped to build a tunnel under the Casco Antiguo. However, that plan was scrapped by the government in favor of a cheaper marine viaduct around the neighborhood. The viaduct would cut the Casco Antiguo off from the water and exaggerate the visual impact of the highway.

Opposition to the government’s proposal popped up almost immediately. Though widespread public opposition against government policy is nearly quotidian in Panama, this marks the first significant movement in defense of a ‘national’ heritage. 

Patrizia Pinzón, a neighborhood resident and real estate agent, has been instrumental in fighting against the project. She helped form a coalition called the Frente Nacional para la Protección del Patrimonio to publically oppose construction. The group has registered great success thus far, creating awareness by organizing protests, collecting thousands of fans on Facebook, and even meeting with President Martinelli himself to voice their position. 

One of the opponents' chief concerns is that the neighborhood would almost certainly be stricken from UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites if construction were to proceed. Ramón Arias – neighborhood resident, business owner, and one of the coalition’s principal organizers – insists that a de-listing would be "fatal for business and for the prestige of the site."

If an alternative is to be considered, it must be done quickly. One solution would be to build a highway through the former Canal Zone that would connect to the Centennial Bridge - the city’s only other vehicular connection across the canal. Another option is be to simply do nothing, as the $1.1 billion metro project that is currently underway is projected to significantly reduce the burden on the city’s streets.

At the moment, it's unclear what the outcome will be. Construction has already begun on either side of the Casco Antiguo. What is clear is that the tunnel is no longer being considered as a serious option. However, if an Embarcadero-like highway is built, it stands to compromise the integrity of Panama’s national heritage as well as the country’s growing tourism industry.

Photos courtesy of (from top) Mary Roush and Thomas J. Sigler.

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