Skeleton of concrete, steel may yet be completed


MEXICO CITY -- Some 20 years ago, developers set out to build Mexico City's tallest building. First it was to be a hotel. Then it was to be a center for the country's burgeoning international trade.

But all that stands today is a 50-story skeleton of concrete and steel -- a nagging embarrassment to the Mexican government as it struggles to attain credibility as a world-class place for trade and a secure place to invest.

"We were going to use a different type of construction that would be replicated around the world," said engineer Herberto Castillo, the original designer of the tower. "But that dream died."

Now, another promise has been made to complete the World Trade Center in the heart of the capital. For $600 million, the GUTSA Group, one of Mexico's largest construction companies, bought the project and plans to finish the first phase by next spring -- just in time to give a successful send-off to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

GUTSA's plans are even more ambitious than those of its predecessors, who failed when they ran into more political opposition and less money than they had anticipated.

The current plans call for the complex to include a World Trade Center with 1,300 offices; a five-star hotel with between 400 and 500 rooms; a shopping center with 400 restaurants and shops, including J. C. Penney and Dillards; an exposition center of 20,000 square meters; and a sport/health club for owners of office space.

The developers say that office owners would also have access to a trade network that would be connected to 241 trade centers in 75 countries around the world. And they don't seem concerned about the glut of office towers being built throughout Mexico City.

"We're not selling office space," says Juan Diego Gutierrez, president of GUTSA. "We're selling a concept."

"By being here," he added during a luncheon at the site, "you will be much closer to all the tools you need to do business: the banks, travel agencies, car rentals."

Erasing history from the minds of potential investors is the toughest challenge. It seems the project is doomed to one failure after another.

"We are going to finish the tower first, not because of the money," said Luis Miguel Canal Hernando, director of the project. "We are finishing it for the sake of credibility. We want people to see that we are really going to complete this project."

Mr. Gutierrez joked that when he wants to convince prospective buyers of the project's security, he invites them to lunch to tour the site. There he shows the visitors a slick video and then he takes them through several models of offices.

"Doubts disappear as you show them what you are doing," Mr. Gutierrez said. "We have to communicate to people that we are really accomplishing things and, secondly, we have to rush as fast as we can in our jobs so that we can quickly turn things around."

The project was first started in 1968 by Manuel Suarez, an influential businessman, who wanted to build the largest hotel in Mexico City. The hotel was under construction when the family ** fell out of favor with the government and lost financial support.

Some 20 years later, Vicente Bartoni gathered some business associates, got a loan from a major Mexican bank and launched an effort to turn the building into a World Trade Center. But a

couple of years later, the demand for office space was much less than he had anticipated, Mr. Bartoni said.

Later it was learned that most of the money he had borrowed for the project went to pay off the Suarez family and their architect. The government refused to bail him out.

The GUTSA group said that it is honoring the deeds of some 300 business owners who bought office space from Mr. Bartoni. Fewer than 3 percent of them have asked for their money back, Mr. Canal said.

"They realize that when the project is completed, they will own a piece of a landmark."

To avert complaints from residents who live around the proposed complex, GUTSA is taking steps to provide ample parking and to prevent surges in pedestrian traffic. They provide all meals to the 1,200 construction workers at the site.

That way dozens of make-shift taco stands won't pop up on street corners and make the place look, well, tacky.

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