Sprouting like some kind of post-modern termite mound between Taft Avenue and Adamson University in Manila, the DMCI Homes Torre de Manila project is definitely an attention-grabber. The single-tower condominium, which will be 41, 46, or 49 stories high—as an interesting report about it by the online news site Rappler pointed out, no one seems to be sure, and DMCI’s own website does not actually provide that information, either—has been under fire since it was first announced sometime in 2012, but is now coming under even closer scrutiny in the form of a Senate inquiry at the behest of Senator Pia Cayetano.
The good Senator wants to investigate two particular issues. First, there is a possibility that the building violates zoning laws (believe it or not, they do exist here) in terms of its floor-to-area ratio. According to existing codes, that ratio—which is the total floor area of the building divided by the total area of the property on which it sits—should be four; the Torre de Manila has a floor-to-area ratio of between seven and eight.
The second issue is that the location and size of the building may violate National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) rules on preserving the integrity of monuments. The Torre de Manila sits in direct line-of-sight behind the Rizal Monument in Luneta Park; with only 17 floors completed so far the building already comes close to dwarfing the monument, and when completed will visually overwhelm it. This particular issue is what originally sparked the protest, led by noted Manila man-about-town Carlos Celdran.
Despite the protests on both the scenic and legal aspects of the project, construction was approved by the administration of former Manila mayor Alfredo Lim; under current mayor Joseph Estrada construction was suspended for a time while the city government reviewed the project, but was eventually allowed to continue.
There is an internet expression that seems appropriate here: “smh,” which means “shaking my head.” While Senator Cayetano is right to observe that the fact that the building—or at least a significant part of it—already exists is not a good enough reason to overlook possible legal irregularities in its approval and construction, one has to wonder why, if the project warrants scrutiny by the Senate, it was not subjected to that before construction began more than a year ago.
At this point, the fight over the Torre de Manila is one that no one can win.
Suppose it is found, through a Senate hearing or otherwise, that the project does violate laws or regulations that should have prevented its approval by two different Manila city governments. In that case, construction stops. DCMI will incur a loss of investment in the project thus far, and might possibly be hit with fines or other sanctions; at the same time, advocates of historical and cultural preservation will be left with an unattractive concrete skeleton as a backdrop to the monument whose aesthetics they are trying to preserve. The prospects of having the unfinished building removed are not bright, if the neighborhood where the Torre de Manila is located is any indication; the property is separated by Taft Avenue by a vacant, overgrown lot where steel pilings from a long-aborted major construction project poke up from the weeds like an odd version of Stonehenge. At a minimum, disposing of the Torre de Manila project in any other manner than completing it will involve years of litigation.
And of course completing it will result in exactly what the historical preservation advocates are trying to avoid, diminishing the aesthetic value of the Rizal Monument and the surrounding park.
This entire saga, wherever it ends, could have a chilling effect on investment; having to account for a risk that, once approved and started, a major project could still be interrupted for extended periods of time or even halted entirely is not an attractive proposition. By the same token, the protestors against the Torre de Manila do have a point worth conceding—the location for the building, while certainly marketable, was a terrible idea from an urban environment perspective; Manila is not unique in crowding out its heritage sites with over-development, but that does not make it any more acceptable.
The fault, however, does not lie with DMCI Homes, but successive city administrations who have failed to take the long view toward development. Projects, whether of a progressive or preservative nature, are undertaken piecemeal in an effort to lengthen a political list of “accomplishments,” with the completely predictable variance in results. What is especially disappointing about that is that, while there are a fair number of intelligent, vocal ‘concerned citizens’ capable of providing oversight, they apparently have yet to learn to carry their complaints from the social media realm into real-world places of authority in a timely manner, when it could still do some good. Waiting to make greater efforts until a point at which any possible solution will simply be an even bigger problem is as short-sighted and harmful as any misstep of the government.