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  • Coasting along Panama’s Pacific

    By Sorrel Downer of the Financial Times Http://www.FT.com
    Published: March 22 2008 00:40 | Last updated: March 22 2008 00:40

    The steamy glamour and air of infinite possibility that lure people to Panama in search of a new life is not exclusive to its capital, Panama City. High-end residential developments up the Pacific coast and on the islands scattered off it promise to deliver the requisite combination of oceanfront setting, high-tech communication systems, stylish architecture and cosmopolitan multiple home-owning neighbors.

    Until last year the stickiest property honey-pots were Bocas del Toro, an archipelago close to the Costa Rican border on the Caribbean side, and the cool, misty mountains around Boquete.

    Much of Bocas is beyond redemption, an erstwhile backpacker haven now overcrowded in parts, overpriced and polluted after a frenzy of amateurish property speculation and budget development.

    And Boquete, synonymous with retired North Americans in gated communities while affordable, with plenty of two-bedroom villas still under $200,000) comes up short on desirable properties. hedonistic pura vida and tropical Oomph.

    But Central American Panama has more to offer, and lately it's been the deserted Pacific coastline that has piqued the interest of developers looking for space to create self-contained exclusive dream home enclaves.

    Fortuitously, the allure of peace and obscurity has also attracted the rich and the famous – rock star Mick Jagger, actors Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie, and New York hotelier Paul Stallings among them – and developers and buyers are converging on the lush and rolling Azuero peninsula.

    It's real cowboy country, with a long convoluted coastline and a smattering of sleepy pueblos: easily accessible if you own a small plane or four hours by car from Panama City if not.

    The most watched of the region's residential projects is Azueros, an 880-acre development at the peninsula's tip masterminded by the owner, French architect Gilles Saint-Gilles, a man more often associated with the restoration of French chateaux and exquisitely designed Saudi palaces.

    Saint-Gilles is designing a community; his holistic master-plan with attention to everything from reforestation to exterior wall palette is intended to produce an environment in which international settlers can enjoy a tropical lifestyle in harmony with nature, without compromise on style and design aesthetics.

    The distinct residential zones share his trademarks: simple lines, open stairs, delicious surprises: doors and windows opening on to colors and spaces; windows like giant letter boxes that open to slices of ocean. There is an emphasis on local “noble, natural and breathable" materials, curving Venetian plaster walls and inlaid pebble mosaics, all washed with honeyed light and set apart by topnotch craftsmanship (an on-site workshop has been set up to provide training in traditional techniques).

    Exterior walls can be any color as long as it's khaki, terracotta, salmon or a variation on white. Didactic perhaps but the varied landscape has a real sense of cohesion as a result.

    And Saint-Gilles is quick to stress there's scope for personalization. “Azueros attracts a diverse group of people," he says. “While adhering to the harmonious general design concept, they're interested in putting some of their own personality into their houses and a great deal of work is invested in personalizing each property."

    Some opt for fundamental changes – adding more rooms, one replacing a mezzanine wall with a mashrabiya, a type of Arabic window made out of wood and allows cool breezes to enter homes. For others the changes are cosmetic – stone floors replacing terracotta, lime plaster interior walls substituting wood paneling.

    “There's a great diversity in the form of each house," says Saint-Gilles, “The varied terrain also contributes to the diversification. Cohesion is not created by conformism and ennui."

    There is nothing so far that can match Azueros for dreamy style and quality but there is a sudden plethora of self-contained developments aimed at hedonistic second-homers and young retirees along Panama's Pacific coast.

    The first batch radiates some distance from the well-established tourist destination Playa Coronado, 84km south-west of Panama City, and includes the 700-acre VistaMar, with golf course perimeter condos starting from $312,900 and ocean-view homes and smallish lots from $700,000-$900,000.
    West of Coronado there are several home and holiday multi-purpose 'fun in the sun' developments such as Playa Blanca Beach Resort, Spa and Residences which plan to offer 1,600 modernist condos, 160 villas and a hotel plus a Nikki Beach resort that will include five-storey blocks of ocean-view residences for those reluctant to leave.

    Those in the second batch, closer to the Costa Rica border, are mainly in the planning stages have a more family-orientated community feel but include the ambitious Las Olas Resort Community – along 18 miles of Playa La Barqueta – with hacienda-style oceanfront homes priced around $399,000 for three-bedroom apartments and $599,000 for four-bedroom flats.

    Residential development has also begun on the Pearl Islands which, like the Azuero Peninsula, have the benefit of being both pleasantly remote and easily accessible.

    A 20 minute flight or two-hour sail from Panama City will get you to Isla Viveros, endowed with the typical tropical bounties of turquoise seas, fine sand and palm trees, and soon to feature a cluster of 550 buildings including beachfront mansions amenities including shopping malls, a clinic, hotel, marinas and a Jack Nicklaus golf course. Lots start from $300,000 and houses from about $750,000.00.

    There's a sense that in meeting the entirely understandable demand for rural properties, something is being lost.

    The people behind Azueros hope to have a bustling village at the scheme's heart, complete with artists' studios, cafés and shops selling estate-grown organic produce along its cobbled streets but, uniquely, it eschews golf courses and orchestrated fun, and instead celebrates the peace of the natural setting.

    A large area of land has been set aside as a natural reserve, reforesting is under way and already the air is filled with the sound of toucans, kiskadees, the screech of hawk eagles, rustling trees and the thump of waves. This is an idyllic convergence of high design and tropical living for lucky and discerning sophisticates.

  • Panama builds on economic boom

    By Richard Lapper and Adam Thomson in Panama City, Http://www.FT.com
    Published: Jul 11, 2007

    President Martín Torrijos of Panama yesterday unveiled what could become one of the biggest investment projects in the country's history, with a value of up to $10bn (€7.3bn, £4.9bn).

    The creation of an urban centre the size of central London on the outskirts of Panama City is the latest sign of an economic boom that has invited comparisons between Panama and bigger international business centers, such as Dubai.

    A specially created government agency will provide residents with streamlined regulation and there will be tax incentives for selected industries.

    London & Regional, the UK-based company that will develop the site, said the project, on the former Howard US air force base, would reinforce Panama's attractions as a centre of international business.

    Ian Livingstone, of London & Regional, said it would combine industrial, retail and residential properties and its value, including all finished infrastructure and buildings, could be worth up to $10bn.

    Mr Torrijos's administration, which took office in 2004, is poised to award the first contract for breaking ground in an ambitious $5.25bn plan to expand the canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is one of the world's most important waterways.

    Panama took full control of the canal in 1999 and the investment in three new locks and physical widening will facilitate the passage of huge cargo ships, known as post-Panamax vessels.

    International and local companies are pouring billions of dollars into Panamanian residential property developments, in large part to capitalize on the peak of interest shown by US and Canadian retired people and second-home buyers.

    In addition, deals worth $14.5bn have been agreed recently to build two oil refineries and the US Congress is expected to approve a trade agreement soon between the two countries.

    Mr Torrijos said recently that the refineries, canal expansion and trade pact are the three motors that could propel Panama towards developed country status. Panama's economy, which is fully dollarised, grew 8.1 per cent in 2006, and economists believe it could grow more than 10 per cent this year. Inflation, meanwhile, is subdued and lending rates are among the most competitive in the western hemisphere.

    However, some analysts suggest that the government must do more to reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, if development goals are to be achieved.

    "Wealth is being concentrated more and more. This is very bad news, " said Guillermo Chapman, an analyst at the Indesa consultancy in Panama City.

    The London & Regional project hopes to attract businesses from neighboring countries that do not enjoy the sort of stability that Panama offers.

    Panama has begun to attract significantly higher numbers of investors from Colombia and Venezuela than in previous years, and analysts expect that trend to continue.

    Although London & Reg­ional has yet to present the government with a master plan of the 1,800-hectare site - WS Atkins, the UK professional services company, must do so within 90 days - the plans are known to include a golf course, apartments, schools and hospital.

    "It will have an urban feel, with town-centre-type shops, public open spaces, condominiums. . . We are going to build a sustainable community, " said Mr Livingstone.

    The site's proximity to the Panama Canal, the Pan-American highway and to Howard's 3.5km runway gave it unprecedented access for individuals and companies, he said. "In terms of logistics, it's a no-brainer. "

    In addition to an initial $405m minimum investment over the next eight years by London & Regional and local partners, Mr Livingstone has committed another $300m over the remainder of the 40-year concession.

    London & Regional, a private company run by Mr Livingstone and his brother Richard, is known as a highly leveraged buyer of property assets. In recent years it has branched out into development projects and started investing overseas, with offices in South Africa, Russia and Ukraine.

    Additional reporting by
    Jim Pickard

  • Panama City: a work in progress

    By Richard Lapper and Adam Thomson in Panama City, Http://www.FT.com
    Published: Jul 11, 2007

    President Martín Torrijos of Panama yesterday unveiled what could become one of the biggest investment projects in the country's history, with a value of up to $10bn (€7.3bn, £4.9bn).

    The creation of an urban centre the size of central London on the outskirts of Panama City is the latest sign of an economic boom that has invited comparisons between Panama and bigger international business centers, such as Dubai.

    A specially created government agency will provide residents with streamlined regulation and there will be tax incentives for selected industries.

    London & Regional, the UK-based company that will develop the site, said the project, on the former Howard US air force base, would reinforce Panama's attractions as a centre of international business.

    Ian Livingstone, of London & Regional, said it would combine industrial, retail and residential properties and its value, including all finished infrastructure and buildings, could be worth up to $10bn.

    Mr Torrijos's administration, which took office in 2004, is poised to award the first contract for breaking ground in an ambitious $5.25bn plan to expand the canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is one of the world's most important waterways.

    Panama took full control of the canal in 1999 and the investment in three new locks and physical widening will facilitate the passage of huge cargo ships, known as post-Panamax vessels.

    International and local companies are pouring billions of dollars into Panamanian residential property developments, in large part to capitalize on the peak of interest shown by US and Canadian retired people and second-home buyers.

    In addition, deals worth $14.5bn have been agreed recently to build two oil refineries and the US Congress is expected to approve a trade agreement soon between the two countries.

    Mr Torrijos said recently that the refineries, canal expansion and trade pact are the three motors that could propel Panama towards developed country status. Panama's economy, which is fully dollarised, grew 8.1 per cent in 2006, and economists believe it could grow more than 10 per cent this year. Inflation, meanwhile, is subdued and lending rates are among the most competitive in the western hemisphere.

    However, some analysts suggest that the government must do more to reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, if development goals are to be achieved.

    "Wealth is being concentrated more and more. This is very bad news, " said Guillermo Chapman, an analyst at the Indesa consultancy in Panama City.

    The London & Regional project hopes to attract businesses from neighboring countries that do not enjoy the sort of stability that Panama offers.

    Panama has begun to attract significantly higher numbers of investors from Colombia and Venezuela than in previous years, and analysts expect that trend to continue.

    Although London & Reg­ional has yet to present the government with a master plan of the 1,800-hectare site - WS Atkins, the UK professional services company, must do so within 90 days - the plans are known to include a golf course, apartments, schools and hospital.

    "It will have an urban feel, with town-centre-type shops, public open spaces, condominiums. . . We are going to build a sustainable community, " said Mr Livingstone.

    The site's proximity to the Panama Canal, the Pan-American highway and to Howard's 3.5km runway gave it unprecedented access for individuals and companies, he said. "In terms of logistics, it's a no-brainer. "

    In addition to an initial $405m minimum investment over the next eight years by London & Regional and local partners, Mr Livingstone has committed another $300m over the remainder of the 40-year concession.

    London & Regional, a private company run by Mr Livingstone and his brother Richard, is known as a highly leveraged buyer of property assets. In recent years it has branched out into development projects and started investing overseas, with offices in South Africa, Russia and Ukraine.

    Additional reporting by
    Jim Pickard