Mexico City's Centro Historico up for restoration

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MEXICO CITY -- The oldest part of Mexico's capital city is set to receive a $300 million face-lift. On the heels of the Mexico City secretary of tourism's newly launched efforts to lure more leisure travelers to the city, plans were unveiled to transform the Centro Historico (historic center) with numerous restorations and enhancements.

Mexico City's main public square, backdropped by the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral, is set to receive a new look. The Centro Historico, which turns 675 years old in 2000, is home to the Plaza de la Constitucion, or "zocalo," which is the second-largest public square in the world; Templo Mayor, which contains the main pyramid of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; the Metropolitan Cathedral; numerous museums, historic monuments and buildings, and cultural institutions.

In 1987, the zone was declared a National Heritage Site by Unesco, but despite its historic appeal, much of the area has fallen into disrepair in recent decades and has suffered from rising crime.

The zone, which spans dozens of city blocks, is gaining in popularity, with new restaurants, trendy bars and nightspots popping up in renovated buildings. The ambitious refurbishment project is intended to further boost the area's appeal among both locals and tourists.

The main elements of the program call for the construction of a new hotel, the beautification of the zocalo, the restoration and conversion of more than 80 18th and 19th century buildings, and the reconstruction of Casa de las Ajaracas, one of the most important structures in the city.

The new hotel will be built on the site of the recently demolished Hotel del Prado in Alameda Park, which contains cultural buildings such as the historic Palace of Fine Arts.

The $79 million hotel will be a 400-room, five-star property owned by a private Mexican investor. An opening date has not been set. Near the zocalo, two youth hostels with a total of 600 beds also will be constructed.

A major transformation is scheduled for the zocalo, with the addition of a small grassy knoll, fountains and a tree-lined promenade with park benches and lamp posts.

The 18th and 19th century buildings to be restored will be converted into apartments and shopping complexes to persuade locals to move back to the Centro Historico.

The former Casa de las Ajaracas, which stood across from the Templo Mayor archaeological site, also is scheduled to be completely reconstructed into a residence for the governor of Mexico City.

During recent excavations beneath the building, a staircase leading to the main pyramid at Templo Mayor was uncovered. The staircase will be showcased as part of the reconstruction of Casa de las Ajaracas, and plans are being laid out to build a bridge leading from Templo Mayor to the building.

Casa de las Ajaracas will be the first of three major cultural buildings that will be adjacent to each other on Guatemala Street. The other two buildings will be Casa Hispana, a 17th century building that will be restored to showcase Spanish cultural exhibits under a separate project, and a museum for the Metropolitan Cathedral.

The huge cathedral, which was begun in 1572 and completed more than 200 years later, has been in the midst of a retrofitting and renovation project for years to save its sinking facade.

While a timeline for completion of the various enhancements has not been revealed, officials hope that many of the improvements will be finished to coincide with the city's 675th birthday celebration next year. A number of festivities, concerts and other cultural events are planned to mark the occasion over the millennium, although details have not been announced.

Aside from the structural improvements and beautification plans, city officials also are aiming to crack down on crime in the Centro Historico, and police presence has significantly increased over the past few months.

In other Mexico City news, the largest exhibition to date on the art of the Maya culture opened this month at San Ildefonso Museum. The exhibition is scheduled to run until December.

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