Gutted by COVID, Buenos Aires rethinks its downtown

In downtown Buenos Aires, signs above shops and on shuttered business tell the story of a city hard hit by the pandemic.

"Liquidation sale because of closing."

"Offices for rent."

They're reminders of the painful economic impact of COVID-19 - an impact the city's Federation of Commerce and Industry president said was like colliding with an iceberg and not having any lifeboats.

Willy, who shines shoes on a downtown corner and would only give his first name, said the loss of business activity in the once buzzing capital took an emotional and physical toll on him, in addition to an economic one.

He says what the city needs now is for more people to return to the downtown shops and cafes, and the city’s officials are trying to figure out how to do just that.

Buenos Aires is rethinking how the downtown area could look post-pandemic, with offices converted to housing to attract residents rather than just workers.

Urban Development Secretary Alvaro Garcia Resta is one of the proponents of that idea.

"I think in that regard the pandemic has opened for us a door for future opportunities which I hope we'll be able to use to create accessible housing offers which is what we are trying to do in Buenos Aires so more people can live in the city."

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. Until then, small businesses in the downtown area continue to suffer.

Hector Lopez Moreno, the president of a local apparel sellers’ association, says the economic loss from the global health crisis has been "tremendous."

He says sales are only up to 40% of what they used to be, albeit an improvement from the early days of reopening.

The city’s officials hope their new plan to create housing downtown will offer a lifeboat to business owners like Moreno, who don't think they can weather another "iceberg."

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