- As the fast-talking, big-money barons of a
full-throttle property boom noisily transform
Panama City's bayfront skyline into a shiny facsimile
of Miami's, a different sort of developer is
quietly revitalizing the city's crumbling, charming
old quarter nearby.
Panama City's casco antiguo, as the old quarter
is known, is home to 780 historic but mostly
dilapidated buildings, from Spanish colonial
dungeons and churches to French and American
townhouses with wrought-iron balconies built
a century ago during the construction of the
Its narrow streets and cobbled plazas evoke
Panama's storied past and present - the conquistadors
and missionaries, the engineers, money-launderers,
and spies. The casco's palpable history of intrigue
has lured Hollywood for such atmospheric productions
as John le Carré's "The Tailor of
Panama." Today, ordinary working people
live here amid genteel decline and know their
neighbors on a first-name basis.
That magic captured the imagination of K.C.
Hardin, an entrepreneurial young American. Hardin,
33, is a leading player in giving the mildewed
old quarter a long-overdue facelift, while making
sure it retains its local flavor and its longtime
There are few places in Latin America where
the push-and-pull between urban modernization
and historical preservation, and between high-priced
developments and affordable housing, is as stark
as in Panama City. Many developers would eagerly
raze the casco's decaying properties to make
way for more luxury skyscrapers with prime water
The area's 100 acres are protected by zoning
laws and building restrictions that are practically
nonexistent elsewhere in the city, and the casco
was named a world heritage site by UNESCO, the
cultural arm of the United Nations. But next
to nothing was being done to restore disintegrating
Hardin, then a corporate lawyer in his 20s with
a top New York firm, came to Panama in 2003 to
surf. He liked it so much, he bought what he
called the "grungy surfer s hostel" where
he was staying and remained behind to run it.
Yearning to start a business to "make good
money, do no harm, and be creative," he
saw his chance when he visited the old quarter.
Hardin's family owned a major real estate brokerage
in south Florida, and he had seen "Miami
transformed from a ghetto to what it is today."
Amid the casco's crumbling facades, he saw a
real estate opportunity. He fell in love with
the eclectic architecture and the neighborhood's
strong sense of community -- and with a Panamanian
named Patrizia Pinzón.
A business school graduate who worked in Panama
with the Smithsonian in public outreach, Pinzón
had previously danced with the national ballet
at the neoclassical Teatro Nacional in the heart
of the old quarter, and shared Hardin's vision
to see the neighborhood restored. Now 30, she
runs the brokerage arm of the property development
company Hardin founded two years ago, Grupo Archipelago
Once the domain of the elite, old quarters throughout
Latin America began to decline in the 1930s,
as the popularity of cars made navigating narrow
streets impractical. The rich began to move into
suburbs, and their city homes fell into disrepair.
Panama's casco is slightly smaller than the
heavily commercialized old town in San Juan and
half the size of the colonial walled city in
Cartagena, Colombia, which is also enjoying a
renaissance and restoration.
As he purchases and rehabilitates properties,
Hardin's guiding philosophy is to be "environmentally
and socially responsible" to create low-income
housing for casco residents at the same time
that he makes luxury condos to turn a profit.
Hardin lived through the gentrification of old
neighborhoods in Miami, Los Angeles, and New
York, and shuddered at the thought of pricing
locals out of their homes. When gentrification
forces out the locals, " you lose human
memory and feeling," he said, sipping mineral
water at a renovated restaurant around the corner
from the home of salsa singer Rubén Blades,
now Panama's minister of tourism.
Hardin converted the old National Music Conservatory
into lofts for artists and scientists on limited
incomes. He recently finished a building of two-bedroom,
500- to 600-square-foot apartments with sea views
for $36,000, available to low-income residents
of the old quarter being forced out by other
Now backed by a group of investors, his new
company, Conservatorio S.A., is converting an
old sweatshop into 10 luxury apartments with
a pool, Italian kitchens, bamboo floors, high-speed
Internet -- and sale prices of between $300,000
The upward and outward urban sprawl underway
in the rest of Panama City distresses Hardin.
"Fortunately, the old city is not the Wild,
Wild West; there are regulations. The buildings
here are at a perfectly human scale," he
said. Best of all, "everyone knows each
other by name and we look out for each other."
2007 The New York Times Company