BUENOS AIRES — Thirty years ago the stable population of Puerto Madero, today one of Buenos Aires' most upscale neighborhoods, consisted mostly of rats. The rodents swarmed across the waterside district like a plague, and anyone walking there had to wear boots to avoid an unpleasant touch. That's exactly what architects did, as they came to map an area abandoned decades before, like an outlaw territory.

Their mission was to turn the storage part of the port into a district of homes, offices and leisure activity. Today, Puerto Madero welcomes thousands of workers and tourists every day. Its luxury tower blocks house the powerful — businessmen, politicians, union leaders — and its real estate prices are now much higher than those of even the best known areas of the Argentine capital. Its tale of rats to riches unfolded over years and in stages.

In 1989, the central and city governments established the Corporación Antiguo Puerto Madero (today's Puerto Madero Corporation) to lead the area's overhaul. By 1996, 16 docks on its eastern side had been restored, and restaurants and offices began to open. The television magnate Alberto González financed the second phase of the district's revival with projects like the Hilton hotel and the Woman's Bridge, designed by Spain's star architect Santiago Calatrava. More offices and flats were built in the third phase this century, creating the city's tallest buildings and a skyline in the spirit of Manhattan or Miami.


Skyline of Puerto Madero — Photo: Deensel

Residents, however, moved in more slowly. A 2001 census counted barely 296 permanent residents, though the numbers rose to 7,000 a decade later, and 13,500 today. But the district has attracted millions of dollars from the wealthiest investors and homebuyers. Initially many sought to "hide" money here, and some apartments became linked to corruption scandals. Perhaps the most notorious crime here remains the death in one of the flats of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor investigating the 1994 terrorist bombing of the city's Jewish community center that killed 85.

Overall the number of people spending time in Puerto Madero every day has increased. Before works began on the Paseo del Bajo underpass in 2017, some 75,000 people including residents, professionals and visitors spent time here every day. Today that number has reach some 105,000.

Perhaps the most impressive numbers concern prices. Local consultants Reporte Inmobiliario recently priced a used apartment in Puerto Madero at about $5,998 per square meter, quite above the $3,430/m2 for Recoleta, traditionally one of the most desirable parts of town. Some new properties have fetched $6,583/m2, and "the most exclusive ones can hover around $12,000," says Federico Andreotti, a local realtor.

We love having the ecological reserve so close by. It is the 'lungs' of the city.

One reason for booming purchase and rental prices here, says another estate agent Pablo Papadopoulos, is because "the quality of life you have here, you don't have in the rest of the city. There is a lot of greenery, which is what people are looking for." Specifically 26 square meters of green space per person, compared to 5.9 on average elsewhere in Buenos Aires.

Two residents drawn here in 2014 by the greenery and especially the nature reserve, were Miriam Torres and Henry Moreno, a couple from Bogotá. "We love having the ecological reserve so close by. It is the 'lungs' of the city," says Miriam.

While she says the couple enjoy eating out here, local food shopping and amenities are not so great. "I go to San Telmo to buy vegetables and meat," she says, referring to a nearby neighborhood. Another resident, Carla, says "there are no bakeries or green grocers nearby," and existing shops are exorbitant: "they charge 90 pesos (about 2 euros) for two peppers."

This is gradually changing as Puerto Madero becomes an increasingly "normal" neighborhood. There are intermittent food and vegetable markets offering cheaper products, while fast food joints have opened beside the posh restaurants. "It is interesting to see how gastronomy, which was initially presented as very elitist, has gradually lowered its profile," notes city planner Alfredo Garay. "It is not just the five-star restaurants of the old docks any more, but also a lot of little bars and restaurants catering to thousands of office workers. The neighborhood is slowly consolidating itself as a place where people live and work."

The present head of the Puerto Madero Corporation, Agustina Olivera, says the area is a "unique case" of urban development, so much so that other would-be projects come here for advice on replicating the model of turning an abandoned port into a modern neighborhood. It's come a long way indeed since the days when the rats were in charge.

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