MANILA, Philippines – “You just assumed that the violations were resolved? I have a problem accepting that you’re a builder in good faith.”
These were the words of a skeptical Senator Pia Cayetano to Roel Pacio, the legal counsel of DMCI Homes, developer of the controversial condominium tower Torre de Manila, on Wednesday, August 27.
The senator, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, Arts and Culture, made the statement at the on-site Senate inquiry on possible violations of national laws and policies in allowing the tower to rise.
Pacio had been explaining that the DMCI Homes obtained zoning and building permits from the Manila City government in 2012, hence their decision to proceed with construction.
But the permits were issued despite flagrant violations of the city’s zoning law which states that Torre de Manila should have a floor-area-ratio of only 4. Based on the blueprint of the tower’s design, Torre de Manila has a floor-area-ratio of 7.79.
“In good faith, we thought the building permit was enough,” said Pacio.
But Cayetano was not satisfied, saying developers of an almost P1-billion ($22.8 million*) project like Torre de Manila should not rest on assumptions.
“A builder in bad faith would know if there were any flaws to his project and still go through with it,” she said.
Manila City Councilor Joel Chua explained then that the go signal was given because Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada did not want to antagonize investors.
Aside from the zoning violations, Cayetano pointed to the impact the 40-plus-story tower would have on the Rizal Shrine, a national historical monument protected by national cultural and heritage laws.
“I’m just so disappointed because I do know DMCI to be a reputable long-time member of our business community and it’s just so painful to see something disrespectful to [what is] historic and cultural,” she said.
Cultural activist Carlos Celdran pointed out that Torre de Manila would ruin the best perspective with which to view the Rizal Monument. Tourists and park visitors view the shrine from the side of Roxas Boulevard.
From this view, Torre de Manila would loom over the shrine ruining its visual dominance and providing “free advertisement for DMCI at the expense of the Filipino people,” said Celdran.
Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler
Several suggestions to lessen the visual blight of the tower came up.
Celdran proposed planting a line of indigenous trees behind and close to the Rizal Monument so as to at least partially cover the tower and replace it with scenes of nature.
Pacio, though unable to present the design of the tower, said the façade would be “Art Deco inspired” to make the building blend with the historical identity of Rizal Park.
National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Chairman Felipe de Leon however said that rarely does an Art Deco building come in the shape of a rectangular box like Torre de Manila.
National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) chairwoman Maria Serena Diokno suggested “encasing the upper portions of the building in glass or any reflective surface to reflect back the monument.”
If Cayetano will recommend that the building follow a height limit, architect Paulo Alcazaren suggested that “development transfer rights” be given to DMCI Homes and other future developers in the area.
This would allow developers who can theoretically build higher than the imposed height limit to sell their floor rights to other developers.
The system would make both heritage advocates, urban planners and developers happy, said Alcazaren.
Not too late to demolish
Cayetano said she is not ruling out recommending that the building be demolished, a pronouncement welcomed by many in the room.
“We can recommend it demolished or chopped off if it cannot blend [in],” she said.
In other countries and even in the Philippines, there have been cases when buildings already in various stages of construction were ordered demolished because of violations.
De Leon cited a case in which the court ordered the demolition of 3 buildings threatening the visual dominance of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
Heritage Conservation Society president Ivan Henares said that in 2007, a sports complex being built inside Intramuros was ordered demolished because it did not have the full approval of the Intramuros Administration and Manila City government.
And in Batangas, artist Ramon Orlina successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to order the demolition of a chapel that would ruin the visual integrity of Taal Basilica, a National Historical Landmark.
Past governments have already taken extreme measures to preserve the dominance of the Rizal Shrine. In 1961, a metal pylon was constructed behind the monument sparking public outrage that forced the government to move it out, said Knights of Rizal representative Xao Chua.
Overlapping jurisdictions, insufficient laws
Alcazaren observed that the Rizal Shrine and Rizal Park as a whole suffers from overlapping jurisdictions of government agencies that have not harmonized their rules with one another.
The National Park Development Committee (NPDC), Department of Public Works and Highways, Manila City government, NCCA, and NHCP, among others, all have policies that potentially impact the park.
These agencies either lacked power or laws to have prevented the visual blight inflicted by Torre de Manila on the Rizal Shrine.
Diokno said though her agency has guidelines to preserve the visual corridors and visual dominance of national shrines, NHCP has no enforcing power to make sure these rules are followed. The National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 is also flawed in terms of enforcement.
Manila City Planning Officer Danilo Lacuna also admitted that the city has no guideline or ordinances about preserving visual dominance of national shrines.
The NPDC, though it supervises the maintenance of the park, cannot extend its power to buildings outside the park even when they impact the park in ways as glaring as Torre de Manila.
These gaps can be addressed by updating the National Cultural Heritage Act and National Building code, said Diokno. The Local Government Code can also be amended to include provisions on heritage sites within LGU jurisdiction.
For her part, Cayetano is mulling filing a bill that seeks to require any decision involving vistas of historical landmarks to be made with the input of national cultural and historical agencies.
She also challenged the Manila City Council to “file a resolution to show that the direction you are taking is the protection of historical sites in Manila,” a challenge Councilor Chua accepted.
With her recommendations yet to come, Cayetano hoped the city government could direct DMCI Homes to practice “restraint” in continuing the construction of the tower.
As of August 20, the tower was already around 19 floors high, according to DMCI Homes. – Rappler.com
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Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.