At present, we have in San Miguel de Allende a government whose basic strategy is to strongly boost tourism and related businesses. Residents begin to feel that we are here to serve the government´s policy, and the NGO’s (set up primarily by ex-pats) are here to support the needs of our town.
This paper seeks to honestly portray San Miguel de Allende’s current situation, and to present two alternatives for the future. If the strategy of the present government continues, tourism and money will be the big players, while welfare, culture, heritage, history, and unique architecture are something mentioned in public speeches, but not much attended to in real life.
The present situation
Since the present government came to power, some improvements to green areas, such as Parque Juarez, have taken place, but many more areas need to be improved and developed. The median on the Boulevard de la Conspiración has been totally renovated as a green area, but the government´s design failed to consider the traffic safety consequences of these medians. The use of green belt “islands” designated for sports, exercise and recreation in the middle of high speed traffic poses a great danger and must change.
Many historic buildings in the center of San Miguel de Allende have had their facades refurbished, with financial support from the government.
Parking is a special chapter. Relaxed guidelines from the government make it possible to park almost anywhere in town, even in spaces specifically marked no-parking. A recent traffic count revealed that in the historical center approximately thirty per cent of the vehicles were illegally parked. The UNESCO rules suggest that traffic should be regulated in the historical center, but that is not the case. Plans do exist which, when implemented, would curb traffic and parking in the center, but they have been abandoned, politically.
Many new hotels have been built and more are underway. Also, the number of restaurants and bars has increased, diminishing the presence of local shops, as well as houses and apartments for residents. Establishing Coppel in the center has driven out some small local businesses as well as families who were living in the houses that were torn down. This action was contrary to the parameters set forth by UNESCO, which strongly warn against sacrificing living areas for shops and bars.
All of the above examples are part of the strategy to boost tourism – and it has worked. To visit the historical center during a weekend is no longer a pleasure. Unless, of course, one is an owner of large shops, restaurants, bars or hotels, thriving from tourist dollars during the weekend, with only negligible income during the week.
Authorization has been given by the presentgovernment, with the support of state government and the complicity of federal offices, to build an industrial site in a location forbidden by a legal planning instrument, called POET (Plan de Ordenamiento Ecológico Territorial.) This agricultural land is considered one of the most important areas for the recharge of aquifers. The rash decisions of the present government may well have a deleterious and irrevocable effect on the future of water availability in San Miguel de Allende.
Lots in housing developments have been sold to speculators without any construction or sales permits. These developments are, obviously, not in conformity with the urban plans.
The municipality has also changed the zoning for land in places of low density, with the sole objective of benefitting private interest. They have accepted many commercial projects without respect or deference to the demands of norms and regulations.
The local government has left unfinished the construction of some public projects of the former government (Slaughterhouse, Social Center, sport facilities, a public concert acoustic shell) simply because they are not their own ideas. The largest public park in SMA, the BICENTENARIO, has been closed to the public because a decision was made to move the offices of Ecology into this park. Monies have instead gone into beautifying fountains, street landscape, and tasteful but inadequately designed bus stops.
SMA is an extremely popular locale; it has become a chic, hip place to visit. There are more tourists every day, and less government control over traffic and transport, public services, and commerce. City planning is deeply flawed.
A likely development
If trends continue, and nothing is done to hold government offices responsible for adhering to the law, fewer local families will live in the center – it is already too expensive in many areas, and money offered to move is tempting. This exodus will leave room for even more businesses to occupy what was previously residential property in Centro.
More bars, restaurants, banks and tourist shops to serve the expected needs of the tourists will pop up, seemingly overnight. Small shops catering to the day to day needs of the residents will disappear. More hotels will be built. Hotels, banks, bars and restaurants plus a few tourist shops will be the Centro of the future.
Traffic problems will be horrific. Visitors will vie for free spaces, while the proper parking lots will quickly fill up, leaving more cars circling, to end at the Cardo parking lot.
Once parked, the short walk to the center is hampered by extremely narrow, unwieldy sidewalks, and the enjoyment of SMA is further hampered by electricity poles.
A visit to the Parroquia in the future may well require tickets, to ensure a controlled number of tourists transition in and out every thirty minutes. Some churches may be turned into museums or trendy restaurants/bars as there will be fewer residents in the center to attend Mass. This would be anathema, turning SMA into a holiday circus.
The many processions for which San Miguel is so well-known may gradually disappear, as locals will have moved away. The traditions will shift from present history and culture for everyone, to the future entertainment needs of tourists.
The demographics of tourists will also change from individuals interested in history and culture to people for whom a good restaurant and bar is the end goal, not museums, historic buildings, gardens or unique shops.
The above scenario of change will not take place over night, naturally, but it will occur over the next 10-15 years. By then, many who are current residents – locals as well as foreigners - may have left town. Their previous family homes might well become just another B&B, hotel, or restaurant.
In the final analysis, even tourists may decide to forego their vacation to San Miguel, because the entertainment level can’t live up to that of beach resorts and then, even businesses supported by tourism will suffer.
For many residents, another development strategy, less apocalyptic, would be preferable.
Tourists are certainly acceptable for our town, but just as 2 beers during a meal is nice but 15 beers may be catastrophic, too many tourists will tear down our town.
So, what to do?
There should be an immediate stop to more hotels being built and an end to the re purposing of houses from residential to hotels, offices or other businesses. The number of restaurants and bars should not increase but a change in ownership as well as in the type of food/drinks proffered may take place.
The central area must be free of parked cars and some streets should be transformed into pedestrian areas. Parking lots should be established at the entrances to San Miguel. Bus terminals should also be situated at the outskirts of town, and urban bus lines should bring travelers to SMA’s center. The ticketing should allow people to change busses within a certain time frame, and the bus stops should be equipped with clear, precise information about when and to where the busses are running.
The public bus system should be changed to smaller urban low-floored busses driven by electricity (no noise, no air pollution) in order to better serve the various colonias. A home should have a maximum of 300 meters to a bus stop. A new ring road should be built from the Celaya road, approximately 3-4 km from the Pipila glorieta to the entrance glorieta, in front of the city administration building, to diminish traffic, air pollution, and noise in our town.
Sidewalks should be widened and designed so that a wheelchair can pass comfortably. Electricity lines should preferably be underground or fitted to buildings, thus allowing pedestrians to pass comfortably. Intersections should be equipped with clear markings for pedestrian crossings. Street lighting should be much improved and should adequately cover the entire city.
Housing developments should be in accordance with the regulations and should seek, primarily, to cater to people living under very poor conditions. The present locations approved for dwelling development should be filled before any new land zoning is changed from a green area to a city development. The industrial site mentioned above should be moved to a location approved by POET. A city plan should be developed based on the above prudent suggestions, and further ordinances should be developed for height and colors of buildings, as well as for what the use of specific land should be.
Implementing the above desirable development will take time, but it must begin now. With a new government ahead, residents of this town should engage in discussions with potential regidores as well as with the elected mayor to prevent San Miguel de Allende from devolving into a strictly-for-entertainment town. We hope to encourage and support SMA as a town which continues to be based on its cultural and historical values and uniqueness, which made it a mecca for many, in the first place.
When it comes to the rural areas, they possess many qualities also worth protecting from mismanagement. An example was the fight to change the alignment of the planned new road from Silao to San Miguel; this has been temporary abandoned.
Only by informing the citizens of San Miguel de Allende of the possible developments can public awareness be strong enough to let the politicians understand that we want to preserve the cultural qualities of our town and not see it transformed to a mass-tourist entertainment spot.