No road in this city's colonial heart passes closer to the landmark Metropolitan Cathedral than the grandly named Republica de Guatemala street. Yet the block that abuts the centuries-old...

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MEXICO CITY — No road in this city’s colonial heart passes closer to the landmark Metropolitan Cathedral than the grandly named Republica de Guatemala street. Yet the block that abuts the centuries-old Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a model of godliness, holiness or even cleanliness.

Closed to traffic, the street has served as a repository of stagnant water, garbage and human waste. Its handsome colonial buildings have housed little more than bootleg compact discs to be sold on the streets and squatters passing their time between jail terms.

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“There wasn’t a single light, so as darkness fell, it was vamonos, let’s get out of here,” said Gisela Prina Rios, whose family has been selling religious items downtown for generations.

It had become much like the other 667 square blocks of the historical center, a massive downtown area that once served as a center of world civilization under the Aztecs and later as a colonial gem left behind by European invaders.

Has that European look

But despite its former hard times, this small chunk of Republica de Guatemala now looks like it could be in Spain, or France, or Italy, with its scrubbed stone facades, brick streets and colonial-style lampposts.

Even amid tight government finances and a stagnant economy, an unprecedented public-private endeavor is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the historical center, part of a much larger downtown redevelopment project. It runs from the city center down the main east-west corridor, Paseo de la Reforma, and through museum-laden Chapultepec Park.

The city government has removed the dark stone walkways along Reforma and replaced them with light brown brick. New metal sculptures punctuate the sprawling sidewalks, along with flowerbeds and serious police presence.

But the crowning achievement has been the construction of the privately financed Torre Mayor, a glass-and-steel skyscraper that reaches up 55 floors and 738 feet, making it the tallest building in Latin America. It cost an estimated $250 million.

An unlikely pair is pushing the redevelopment project: the leftist Mexico City mayor and possible 2006 presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and billionaire businessman Carlos Slim, who owns Mexico’s dominant phone company, a bank, retail chains and even Dallas-based CompUSA.

The federal government is also involved in the restoration of the historical center and will soon build an office tower there to house its Foreign Ministry.

An attraction for all

“The rescue of the historical center is not just for the residents of Mexico City, but for all the people on the continent,” said Ana Lilia Cepeda de Leon, director of the city government’s Historical Center Trust Fund.

The 6-square-mile area is filled with the creations of centuries of civilizations in its Indian ruins, dozens of Catholic churches, colonial buildings and the sprawling Zocalo plaza.

Downtown residents admitted they were initially skeptical about the project, since the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had failed to deliver on repeated promises of a downtown clean-up in the seven decades it controlled the nation and its capital. But the PRI lost Mexico City in 1997 elections and the presidency in 2000.

This time, neighborhood groups have been put in charge of their local projects and given the money to carry them out, and many have become believers.

A mounted police unit patrols the monument to Benito Juarez in the revitalized Parque Alameda, in the historic district of downtown Mexico City.

“This is the most beautiful street in the downtown center,” Prina said of Republica de Guatemala as she put away ugly pictures taken years ago of a garbage-strewn street pockmarked by neglect. The squatters have been booted out and classy garbage receptacles have been installed — although they still get stolen from time to time.

There’s more to the effort, including a new police force, hundreds of bright street lamps, upscale lofts in place of abandoned buildings, a slew of new businesses following years of blight and a slow return of inhabitants who had fled during a 100-year exodus to the suburbs.

There are even long-term plans to re-inject water into the ground to keep heavy buildings in the city center and elsewhere from sinking into the soft subsoil, as they have for centuries. In 10 or 15 years, some have predicted, the downtown area could become gentrified, the place to be and even pricey like New York or London.

To be sure, the project has only just begun — and so have the political battles.

The historical center is home to thousands of street vendors who have been battling a series of local governments for decades, as authorities try to take back the sidewalks of the city center.

Recent statistics have shown that the number of reported crimes in the downtown area that includes the centro historico — about 3,500 for the first six months of the year — is actually higher than two years ago.

Other critical voices wonder whether Slim is turning the project into another one of his highly successful businesses at the expense of residents.

Refurbishing a 400-year-old colonial building is not cheap, and the Mexican mogul has a for-profit real-estate company, Centro Historico SA, buying up downtown properties.

Intent on proceding

“Those who say that I am taking over the city center, that it’s a monopoly, that I already bought up everything, or that it’s become the ‘Slim Center,’ are not going to stop me from continuing my project,” he recently told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.

“There are 9,000 lots in the historic center, and we have only bought about 55 properties, plus the 15 we already owned, which together amounts to less than 1 percent,” Slim told the newspaper.

The head of Slim’s real-estate company and a not-for-profit Historic Center Foundation, Adrian Pandal, said that between the two entities, they have invested as much as $200 million in the area in the first phase of what is likely to be a decades-long project.

Thousands of jobs — from Slim’s companies and others — have been relocated from the city’s suburban south to the city center, giving new life to a downtown area that had as many as 1 million permanent residents a century ago but has perhaps 100,000 now, Pandal said.