In Buenos Aires downtown, a city seeks new lease of life after pandemic 'iceberg'


FILE PHOTO: A pedestrian walks past out-of-business stores which display "For rent" signs, near Buenos Aires' Obelisk, Argentina, in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina August 20, 2021. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In downtown Buenos Aires, the scars of the pandemic are clear for all to see. In store windows, signs read "We're leaving," "Final settlement," and "Closing down" - a reminder of the painful economic impact of COVID-19.

As with city centers elsewhere, Argentina's picturesque and famously lively capital has faced a reckoning since the coronavirus hit last year. Offices closed as many people worked from home, cutting off the supply of consumers to cafes, shops and services in downtown commercial zones.

"This building is empty because most people who had their offices here are working from home and have not returned," Fabian Castillo, president of the Federation of Commerce and Industry in the city, said from his downtown office.

"We collided with an iceberg and we found that we did not have lifeboats."

In 2020 Buenos Aires city saw its economy plunge 9.2%, similar to the drop nationwide, with tough pandemic restrictions seeing schools shut for most of the year, public transport limited to essential workers, and social activity limited.

Now the city is looking to recover and rethink how the downtown area could look post-pandemic, with offices converted to housing to attract residents rather than just workers.

"This is an area of ​​the city that has a lot of infrastructure, of course it will return," said Alvaro Garcia Resta, urban development secretary of the local government.

"What we are trying to do is return in a way we want, to help the city center become more a neighborhood to live in."

The city government is expected to approve a project that will propose subsidized rates for mortgage loans and for office owners who need to invest to convert them into housing. Business leaders are also pushing for tax breaks for conversions.

'ENORMOUS DAMAGE'

On Florida Street, a largely pedestrianized thoroughfare in the financial heart of Buenos Aires that in pre-pandemic times would throng with shoppers, visitors and buskers, storekeepers related how badly the closing down of tourism and offices had hit.

"The damage to this road, to the entire downtown area, was enormous," Hector Lopez Moreno, president of the local apparel sellers' association, told Reuters from his office.

"That led to a lot of business closures and a lot of companies and businesses that were merged."

Part of Florida's appeal are the 'galerias', or shopping arcades, some of which are architectural masterpieces dating back to Buenos Aires' golden age over a century ago. According to the Association of Friends of Florida Street, of some 900 commercial premises in the galerias, about 500 have closed and 2,500 jobs have been lost since the pandemic began.

Lopez Moreno, who runs a clothes shop his father founded in 1947, said sales had started to return as restrictions had been eased, but only to around 30%-40% of pre-pandemic levels.

"That's not enough to cover expenses," he said, adding he was hoping that with the advance of the vaccine roll-out, international and domestic tourism would gradually reopen.

Willy, a shoeshine working on a downtown corner who only gave his first name, is hopeful about the conversion project after "very difficult" months where he said everything "totally stopped."

"More people coming is good for everyone, more movement - that's what we need," he said.

(Reporting by Eliana Raszewski; Additional reporting by Juan Bustamante; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)

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