In Mexico City, planners turn vacant space under freeways into places to work, dine, play


A man rests on one of the new park benches in one of Mexico City overpass developments on May 27. Urban planners are converting vacant lots beneath Mexico City's overpasses and freeways into shopping plazas, public playground and outdoor cafes. (Dominic Bracco II / Prime)

You can’t get something out of nothing. This is common sense, not to mention a principle of physics and mathematics.

Yet the amazing science of Mexico City’s real estate development obeys no such laws.

Urban planners here, in one of the world’s most populous and crowded cities, have found a way to add thousands of square feet of new commercial and recreational space. And it isn’t costing local government a cent.

Their gambit is called Under Bridges (“Bajo Puentes”), and it’s a simple idea: Convert the vacant, trash-strewn lots beneath Mexico City’s overpasses and freeways into shopping plazas, public playgrounds and outdoor cafes.

“This used to be a dark, dirty place where vagrants slept, and now look at it,” said Mercedes Campos, the proprietor of a Hawaiian-themed salad bar nestled under an expressway in the Coyoacan neighborhood.

Campos was admiring the brand-new food court outside her shop, whose outdoor tables were full with a lunch crowd of high school kids, hard-hat workers and taco-munching businessmen in suits.

“There’s a terrific atmosphere here,” she said, and it was true. On a hot, smoggy May afternoon, the area was cast in cool shade by the six-lane roadway, and there was no discernible noise from the heavy traffic overhead.

A gentle breeze tickled, channeled through by the massive concrete pilings holding up the freeway.

City officials say they have developed four Under Bridges zones and have plans for 20 more.

“These were spaces that generated no benefit and had been illegally appropriated as dumping grounds for trash or as homeless campsites,” said Eduardo Aguilar, an urban planner for the Mexico City government who helped design the program. “They were spaces that cost the city to maintain and were a drain on resources.”

Aguilar said he and other planners made up the Under Bridges program as they went along because they knew of no other city trying to build cafes and shops under its freeways.

Persuading business owners to move in at below-market lease rates was not nearly as big a challenge as kicking out the unlicensed parking attendants who had commandeered the areas to run private lots, he said.

The Under Bridges program stipulates that 50 percent of the land remain as public space, with playgrounds, exercise areas, greenery and picnic tables; 30 percent is commercial and office space; and the remaining 20 percent is reserved for parking.

Aguilar said the city didn’t need to spend money to develop the land, granting concessions to private developers instead. Those developers shoulder the cost of cleanup, construction and maintenance while leasing the commercial and retail space to businesses approved by city officials.

“These are places that improve public safety,” he said. “They have pedestrian crosswalks, they are well-lighted at night, and, most importantly, they attract a lot of people — which, in turn, brings more security.”

In a city flooded with street vendors but short on affordable retail space, the program is also designed to move some of the snack stands and other impromptu eateries into more formal and hygienic quarters. The Under Bridges areas have bathrooms, running water, electricity and outdoor lighting.

One new tenant of the Coyoacan food court, Super Tacos Chupacabras, is a venerated Mexico City institution that operated out of a street cart for 25 years before moving into its location beneath the bridge in February.

“Now our customers have a place to sit down,” manager Luis Lopez said.

His workers still labor over crackling skillets of steak, chorizo and a mystery meat boasting 127 spices, known as “chupacabras,” but the new locale affords enough space to add a dripping rotisserie of “al pastor”-style pork. A taco can be had for less than a dollar, heaped with beans, sauteed onions, nopal cactus, potatoes and cilantro, then topped with an avocado salsa whose spice rating verges on thermonuclear.

Smoke billows from Super Tacos Chupacabras 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just as it did on the street, only now customers no longer have to face the elements while they fill up. “It’s a little weird to be under here,” said Ruben Alazar, settling in to eat a plate of gut-busting tacos on his lunch break. “But at least you don’t have to stand around eating in the sun.”

The new eateries aren’t all fast-food joints. In one carefully landscaped area, a smartly dressed crowd dined on fresh and raw seafood while ensconced in a fern grotto that helped shield any noise and exhaust. Customers sat beneath patio umbrellas, even though the roadway above was blotting out the sun.

“I wanted something modern-looking and clean,” said Robert Carillo, owner of Don Ceviche. “The plants give it a protected, intimate feel.”

At another Under Bridges innovation nearby, Roberta Gutierrez had stopped on her way home from a job as a cleaning lady to try out a new set of free outdoor exercise machines. “This is great,” she said, working her abdominals as cars whizzed by. “Not everyone can afford to join a gym.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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