Factories and a surprise factor

Juana Torino and her partner, Agustín Mantilla, are on a reconnaissance mission. Looking for somewhere to buy but driven out of the hip heart of Buenos Aires by high property prices, they are visiting the southern limits of the Argentine capital to check out its newest Cinderella.

Long dismissed as a dingy industrial wasteland of derelict warehouses, bisected by a busy motorway and bordering the country’s most polluted waterway, Barracas was on nobody’s radar screen until about five years ago when pioneering developers caught on to the potential of transforming huge old factories into chic apartments and designer lofts.

Since then parts of Barracas have been beautifying fast and, with its proximity to the city centre, an emerging arts scene, a clutch of classy new restaurants and some of Buenos Aires’s most gorgeous old mansions, the neighbourhood has finally emerged as a smart bet for property seekers.

It is a far cry from Palermo, where Torino currently lives, which has bars and eateries on virtually every corner and boutiques everywhere in between. Palermo blazed an urban revival trail in Buenos Aires more than a decade ago but for many it has lost something of its soul amid the foreigners who now throng its streets.

“I like the fact that Barracas is more barrio,” says Torino, using the Argentine expression for “having a real neighbourhood feel”. That description is often a euphemism for “run down” but here it conveys the unpretentious spirit of a part of town in which people live where they grew up, children play football on cobbled streets and entering the ironically named Café Progreso is like stepping back in time.

Property in Palermo also costs nearly $2,000 per square metre, Torino adds, ruefully, putting the kind of house she dreams of beyond her budget. (Property prices are routinely quoted in US dollars in Buenos Aires.) “I would move here,” she concludes. Flats in some of the factory conversions that put Barracas on the map can command $1,700 or $1,800 sq metre, while the going rate for small apartments to refurbish in the smartest parts is a few hundred dollars per sq metre less, according to real estate consultant José Rozados. That compares with prices of at least $4,000 sq metre in Buenos Aires’ most upscale district, the nearby dockside development Puerto Madero. Rozados notes, however, that Barracas is a mixed bag and property in some of its less trendy parts can cost as little as $800 sq metre.

Barracas was built on trade and industry: the district took its name from rudimentary warehouses built in the 18th century on the bank of the River Riachuelo, to store hides and salted meat. It was also reputedly the entry point for black slaves. Prosperity attracted the city’s elite, who built sumptuous mansions. But they fled the area during a yellow fever epidemic in the late 19th century and Barracas became an immigrant working-class neighbourhood. Today, many of the bourgeois villas remain, giving the area a romantic air which neighbourhood groups want to preserve at all costs.

“I love the architecture – it’s unique in Buenos Aires. The neighbourhood was starting to be up-and-coming and prices were still reasonable,” says Agustina Del Campo, who bought her apartment in 2008. Described by one visitor as “like stepping on to the set of Evita”, it is housed in a mansion built by British railwaymen at the turn of the 20th century and sits on the border with San Telmo, one of the city’s most historical and picturesque districts.

The nearby boutique hotel Casa Bolivar, housed in a beautifully restored building dating from 1901, trades on that connection, marketing itself as being in San Telmo because, as one employee puts it, “tourists don’t know Barracas yet”. Del Campo lives mostly in Washington, DC, but hopes to move back and settle in Barracas. One of her recent tenants is a British interior designer, Emma Balch, who is working on the transformation of a house half a block away, in San Telmo, into an arts centre with a gallery, rental apartments and restaurant, which she expects to increase attraction to the area.

“You get a great feel for Buenos Aires in its heyday,” says Balch. “I think people like the surprise factor. So many people wondered why we were moving so far away, especially as I’m such a fan of Palermo. Then they visit and think: ‘OK, now I get it,’” she says.

Gustavo Giuliano settled in Barracas 12 years ago because it was a quiet neighbourhood with easy access south to his hometown of La Plata. “In these dozen years there have been an amazing amount of properties revamped,” he says. “We want to move to a bigger place but it’s tough – everything is so in demand.” He paid about $800 sq m for his apartment in an old building. Now he expects to have to pay $1,400 sq metre for a propiedad horizontal, or PH, a typical old-style Buenos Aires construction where a plot of land is subdivided into houses, accessed by a shared passageway that opens on to the street.

“Barracas has excellent potential,” says Rozados, who notes that property prices are now 15 to 20 per cent higher than a couple of years ago. “There are millions of square metres available and the possibility for multimillion reconversions, like the Moca,” he says, referring to an award-winning luxury apartment block with gardens, pool and cinema on the site of what was once a biscuit factory.

The city government has ambitious plans to revitalise the south of Buenos Aires and has moved some ministries to Barracas, where it hopes in time to relocate its entire administration. One aim is to develop part of the grounds of the city’s two mental hospitals near the polluted Riachuelo.

“Like all overlooked neighbourhoods, development is piecemeal and gradual,” says Fernando Caminal, managing director of Baresa, which transformed an old textile factory into the Barracas Central complex of luxury lofts, complete with internal ramps for residents to drive right up to their doorsteps.

Barracas Central hosted the prestigious annual Argentine design fair, Casa FOA, in 2005, the year local artist Marino Santa María began turning the designs he had painted on houses in his street into mosaics, a project that has made Pasaje Lanín one of the most original in the city. Other artists and designers have followed. The Metropolitan Design Centre is located in an old fish market; the district is home to an art school; local painters have taken studios in the Central Park building, whose façade was decorated by Argentine artist Pérez Celis; and the Barracas Design shop opened this year, offering original furniture concepts.

“This neighbourhood is definitely up and coming,” says New Yorker Pamela Murphy, who has lovingly transformed a crumbling old PH into a tranquil bed and breakfast called Garden. “But I wouldn’t want to see it change totally. I like it a little dirty and arty.”

Moca, tel: +54 11-4519 5572, www.vivomoca.com

Jude Webber is the FT’s correspondent for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

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