Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Let’s save Manila Bay---famous for its sunsets and scene of historic battle between two admirals toward end of 19th century---from massive (288 has.) reclamation project stretching from Manila Yacht Club all the way to US Embassy. Let’s protest Manila City Council Ordinance 8233 and consortium agreement signed last April---sans public hearing---on this massive waterfront reclamation.

Manila Bay Sunset

Many decades ago, just a few years out of the university, I was working as special projects officer of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation along Roxas Blvd. in Manila.  In those days I was also steadily dating a young West Point-trained lieutenant, who, in his free time, would fetch me after office. We’d cross the Boulevard and sit by Manila Bay---munching on boiled peanuts being peddled there, as we’d watched the sun sink into the historic waters where Admirals George Dewey and Montojo had fiercely fought in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.
 Like many other folks a-courting in those days, the lieutenant (then earning a measly P180 a month) and I would often cap the evening with an inexpensive dinner of pancit palabok and fried chicken at the Aristocrat Restaurant near Malate Church. It was common to see many families also enjoying the sunset and strolling from the CCP to the Luneta or vice-versa.
 Life was so simple in those decades---and the gorgeous wonders of the Manila Bay and the Boulevard were free for everyone to enjoy.   


But these days, Manila Bay and the boulevard that curves around it---that famed American engineer-architect Daniel Burnham of Baguio fame had once been moved to term the most beautiful in the world---is seriously threatened with massive reclamation by a corporation with foreign connections.  Civic-spirited leaders such as former Mayor Lito Atienza, Don Emilio Yap and shipping heiress Doris Magsaysay Ho are up in arms against it.
A civic group is teaming up with environmentalists from many places, and they’re determined to challenge this reclamation in court. All of us who value the historic and cultural significance of Manila Bay and the Boulevard should actively support their move. This is especially because the stretch being reclaimed in the consortium agreement---all 288 hectares from the Manila Yacht Club to the US Embassy boundary--- is ALL THAT'S LEFT OF THE ORIGINAL LONG SCENIC WATERFRONT along the boulevard.

It will be recalled that after Imelda Marcos began the reclamation of the huge area occupied by the CCP complex, reclamations by various administrations choked up the sea where the gigantic Mall of Asia complex and other commercial establishments now stand.  
It should help a lot that the Supreme Court during the term of former Chief Justice Reynato Puno had issued a continuing mandamus to take care of the historic Bay. Let’s hope that the SC under new CJ Lourdes Sereno would uphold it.  

It appears that a business group called “Manila Goldcoast Development Corporation” had succeeded in repealing in February 2011 an old city ordinance prohibiting this reclamation; then, without a public hearing, a consortium agreement was signed in April this year to reclaim the remaining waterfront along Roxas Blvd. This group is said to have strong connections to City Hall. In fact its new contract is said to mention the word “reclamation” no less than 46 times and it can reportedly cover other areas there even without an ordinance.
In addition to blocking the view of the famed sunset from Malate and Ermita, the reclamation project could worsen the floods that plague Roxas Boulevard from time to time, affect the tourism area all the way to historic Intramuros, and remove 20 vital anchorage berths for ships. But MOST TRAGIC OF ALL, it will obliterate the sunset that generations of Pinoys and foreigners have loved (does anyone bother to see the sunset from the MOA anymore?). 

The reclamation would be profit of only a few well-connected individuals. Today the battle-cry is “Save Manila Bay for Us All."   


I sat down to talk about this issue with former Mayor Lito Atienza, inasmuch as he was vice-mayor and head of the Manila City Council that had vetoed this reclamation project around 1993-1994. He stressed that as early as 1992 Manila Goldcoast had already been lobbying to reclaim the entire waterfront along Roxas Blvd. between the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the US Embassy.  But this scheme was fought by environment-conscious and civic-minded people who found support in Vice Mayor Atienza, who had grown up in the Malate area.
“Because I love this area, I just  couldn’t allow this massive reclamation to push through,” he said. Thus, the City Council passed City Ordinance No. 7777, prohibiting it (Atienza admits he had once advocated development of a 100-meter wharf similar to the famous San Francisco Bay Wharf behind the Quirino Grandstand, but he insists it was not a reclamation project as Goldcoast wants).


The Goldcoast group that reportedly counted at that time a powerful Chinese businessman named Pio Lato was said to have found a connect to Mayor Alfredo Lim and there was no let-up in pressure on the City Council to lift the ban on the reclamation;  but when the Chinese businessman died Mayor Lim couldn’t move.
 Through the three mayoral terms of Lito Atienza from 1998 to 2007 the prohibition remained, but with the reelection of Mayor Lim in 2007 pressure mounted again.  In February 2011 Goldcoast succeeded under very stealthy circumstances in getting new ordinance No.8233 passed, repealing the old No. 7777. Then came the new broader consortium agreement signed last April 2012.

Interestingly, during the hearing before the Supreme Court on the protection of the Manila Bay and environs, Prof. Antonio Oposa, the Ramon Magsaysay-Awardee recognized for his deep involvement with protecting the environment, was asked to testify on the Manila Bay issue. Oposa asserted that the government had failed in protecting the Bay, and to the surprise of the SC magistrates, Lito Atienza, then DENR Secretary in the Arroyo administration, heartily agreed with Oposa.
 In fact Atienza blamed the two water concessionaries servicing the metropolis for the pollution of Manila Bay, as they had failed to provide proper and adequate waste-water treatment facilities there. The SC was gladdened that the DENR Chief sided with the environmentalists and issued the mandamus which remains to this day.

 In many years of travel this writer has seen many beautiful boulevards bordered by sea in many parts of the world. I can easily think of Boulevard des Anglais in Nice, that curves along the Mediterranean Sea. Then there is the long panoramic boulevard in the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt that also borders on the Mediterranean, and the fabulous boulevard in the city of Bari in southern Italy, along the Adriatic Sea. In the US there are a good number of beautiful boulevards, including that which rings the famed Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Certainly Roxas Boulevard along historic Manila Bay, with its world-famous sunset, can easily rival any of these famed spots.
Common to all of them is an unimpeded and unobstructed view of the waters. But the massive reclamation project planned by Goldcoast cannot improve Manila Bay, the pride of our capital city. What the Bay needs is not a super-grand string of casinos, night-clubs and high-rises in its remaining waterfront area, but continuing care of its  waters to keep out the pollution and preserve them---and the world-renowned golden sunset of Manila Bay--- for generations to come.

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