The city of Manila, with its rich cultural history, is struggling to strike a balance between modern development and heritage conservation, aggravated by the urban problems of traffic, waste disposal and informal settlers.
In the last five years, Mayor Alfredo Lim claims the city skyline has started changing owing to his bid to modernize the Philippine capital. High-rise developments have sprouted, which could, in fact, threaten Manila’s cultural identity.
“We are criticized for being left behind by other cities, but if we allow the construction of modern buildings, we will still be criticized. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t,” Lim said.
Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Lim’s executive assistant and vice chair of the Manila Historical and Heritage Commission, has said that, with the mayor’s mantra of the law applying to all, heritage buildings in the city will be protected from demolition as stipulated in the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.
“It is difficult to balance the commercial needs of development and the preservation needs of a city that wants to preserve its special and unique personality,” Araneta said.
“Another difficulty is, most of the developers are in the private sector, who probably think, ‘Well, I own this property, I can do with it whatever I wish.’ But then, there’s a law,” she said.
Recently, an online petition urged the new owner of the Philam Theater on UN Avenue to preserve the performance hall.
Araneta said she had talked with Annie Garcia, president of SM supermalls, and suggested that the façade and the theater be preserved, which is what the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has also recommended.
The GSIS Building, which is being renovated into a Hall of Justice by the Supreme Court, was saved from demolition when heritage conservationists intervened and made an appeal.
Same with the Meralco Building. “It’s still there but the owners won’t talk to us,” Araneta said.
In a separate interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lim recounted how a group of realtors visited his office right after he won the 2007 mayoral election.
“I asked them why they didn’t have any projects in the city of Manila. They said they would lose money because of an ordinance limiting the height of buildings to 19 stories,” he said.
Noting the high-rise development in the cities of Makati, Mandaluyong and Pasig, Lim gave them the go-signal for an all-out development by setting aside the ordinance and following the national building code instead.
“Since then, many have built 30- to 40-story high-rise condominiums. As of now, there is a 57-story building being put up in Ongpin, which would be the tallest in Manila. There is another 53-story project behind Admiral Hotel on Roxas Boulevard,” Lim said.
Last November, a Swiss group also inaugurated a 50-story condominium in Ermita and told Lim that six more condos will be built in Ermita and Malate areas.
“Slowly, we are now changing the skyline of the city of Manila,” Lim said.
But the mayor washed his hands off the reclamation project that would be undertaken by private developer Manila Goldcoast Development Corp. through a consortium agreement with the city government.
Lim said the Philippine Reclamation Authority approved the project and the city was only included in the contract for its revenue share.
“It’s wrong to say that there will be a reclamation along Roxas Boulevard between the US embassy and the Manila Yacht Club,” Lim said, explaining that the 148-hectare Goldcoast “Solar City” will be reclaimed from Manila Yacht Club to the Philippine Navy grounds, perpendicular to Roxas Boulevard.
The PRA’s National Reclamation Plan, however, shows that 26,000 ha of Manila Bay from Cavite to Bataan will be available for reclamation.
“As long as I’m the mayor, there will be no reclamation there,” Lim said.
Incidentally, the city council passed an ordinance in May 2011 that lifted the ban on reclaiming Manila Bay and allowed the mayor to take steps to reclaim certain portions to give way to the Goldcoast project.
As he seeks a third consecutive term, Lim is proposing to make Manila the premier business district again with the Manila Financial Center under the South Harbor Expanded Port Zone project.
A Korean consortium has proposed to build the financial center with a $4-billion investment in exchange with a 50-year lease and 70-percent share of the revenue.
The financial center, which will not involve reclamation as it will utilize Port Area, will create 150,000 jobs and attract around 2 million tourists annually, Lim said. There will be malls, residential buildings, parks and docks for cruise ships.
Critics are quick to point out that he has been mayor three times; why is he only proposing this now? Lim explained that he had pitched the project to former Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos since it involved national government property, but talks did not push through.
The project is now being evaluated by the private-public partnership program committee and needs to be endorsed by the Cabinet economic cluster before President Aquino approves it.
“What I want for Manila is to be attuned with modern times and be called a modern city. Manila is the capital, it cannot remain forever as it is,” Lim said.