Zoom, zoom, Cebu

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - November 18, 2006 - 12:00am
I just got back from a quick trip to the Queen City of the South – Cebu. The place was abuzz with preparations for the ASEAN meet scheduled in early December. The short shuttle ride to my hotel took me through an unfamiliar section of the city. Crossing from Mactan, we hit a wide avenue that reminded me of the Macapagal highway in Metro Manila’s reclamation district. We decelerated a bit midway because of some traffic. I realized that it was because everyone was slowing down to gawk at the "substantially complete" Cebu International Convention Center.

Even the hotel-car driver gawked at the CICC (as the Cebuanos refer to it). Everyone, he said, was speculating as to when the huge complex would be completed. He blurted that he was confident that it would be finished in December–2008, that is. From the looks of it, he seems to be right; unless the former first lady Imelda Marcos has been retained to manage the project.

The CICC seems to be a 90-day wonder like the old Folk Arts Theater, which was completed by Her Imeldific Highness for the 1974 Miss Universe competition in Manila. I found out later, from the local architectural and construction folk, that planning and construction for the CICC was a year in the making – an extremely short time to implement anything of this scale.

I asked around to find out what happened to the plans touted three years ago to construct a mega-complex that was to house a stadium and convention facilities. If my memory serves me right, it was a competition won by a talented repatriated Cebuano architect, who had come home after years of working in Hong Kong. I gathered from industry sources that the design was never implemented, nor the winner compensated for his substantial design work. Then the accounts got fuzzy. The current dome design was apparently quickly put together and construction started at breakneck speed.

Changes in Cebu City have been accelerating since after the martial law years. It quickened with a spurt of construction, tourism and business activity in 1990 – even outpacing Manila, which had struggled with coups and power shortages early in that decade. Those were the "Ceboom" years that seemed headed for explosive growth until the Asian Crisis hit. The province even took to marketing themselves as "an island in the Pacific," just to distance itself from Manila.

The city has always had a love-hate relationship with Manila, the city that replaced it as the Spanish-era capital in the 1570s. It slowly evolved nevertheless since it was already an important trade center even before the galleon-borne Kastilas came. That pace quickened with the arrival of more Westerners – this time speaking a strange and strangely-accented language (one that today is being mimicked by young Cebuanos in call centers mushrooming all over metro-Cebu).

The American colonial authorities had great plans for Cebu. Not only Manila and Baguio were provided with grand master plans for redevelopment. Cebu was envisioned, by American planner William E. Parsons, to be at par with Manila in terms of grand boulevards, a new grid system for commerce and residential growth, as well as the provision of both a city government center and a provincial government complex at the western edge of the city.

A disastrous fire in 1903 gave the impetus for the city’s redevelopment. The old downtown of medieval meandering streets (like Colon) was reconfigured to meet the needs of a southern port city. A new harbor was constructed. Warehouses were built. Schools and hospitals were constructed to serve a growing population (over 50,000 for the city and under 400,000 for the province). A rail system was even laid – my father used to ride the train from the city to his (and my) hometown of Argao.

The importance of Cebu was gauged by the construction of a customs house, military barracks and a spanking-new city hall. In 1910 a grand plan was conceived to extend the city with a provincial government complex linked by a Paris-like boulevard to the city center. It took another two decades, but Cebuanos did get their Antonio Toledo-designed Art Deco Provincial Capitol in 1939.

The war saw the destruction of much of Cebu. The robust construction (in reinforced concrete), however, saved a good number of buildings – including the customs house, the City Hall and the provincial capitol. By the early ‘60s (as shown by the aerial views in this article), Cebu had turned out quite nicely, thank you. It was served by a good airport at Lahug. Suburban residential developments provided airy lots with easy access via (billboard-free) Jones and Mango Avenues to the business and commercial districts. Business was booming.

Much has changed since. Cebu has mutated into Metro Cebu – mirroring the best and the worst of Metro Manila (or as the Cebuanos like to call it–Imperial Manila). Purpose-built commercial centers have sprouted along with new subdivisions. The airport moved to Mactan in the ‘70s and reclamation areas that started in the ’60s are now filling up with more buildings and new commercial and mixed-use districts. Traffic today is bad and spaghetti flyovers are turning urban fringes into choke points. Those evil billboards (not as tall as Manila’s but as looking just as structurally weak and deviant of the National Building Code) combine with pervasive blight to offset any redeeming charm of the city (such as the presence of lots of great restaurants and night spots).

Urban design obviously has not been considered a factor in the city’s metamorphosis. Good examples of Cebuano modern architecture abound but are compromised by less than ideal settings and a road infrastructure that defies logic. Cables and poles block the sky. Few sidewalks are evident and most modern Cebuanos have to ride to get anywhere (they do seem to have the latest fancy cars and SUVs). Strip malls and roadside commercial development appear to be default development – not surprising in a situation that seems market-driven and almost devoid of density or zoning control.

Cebu City seems to be in a rush to make up for momentum lost at the turn of the new century. The upturn in the economy, the steady return of tourism as well as the growing furniture and BPO businesses are driving Cebu City (and the province) forward. But the speed at which it is doing it needs to be tempered by a conscious and coordinated effort at controlling physical development. This so transport and utility infrastructure can be more efficiently planned and built, so residential development is rationally distributed and made available to all sectors, so civic complexes and public amenities like parks and playgrounds are provided in proportion to a growing urban population.

Metro Cebu can do it – get its urban act together, that is. Its advantage is that its problems are not as huge as Manila’s. Cebu’s great advantage, too, is its rich resource of world-class architects, landscape architects and engineers. Governance and its attendant problems of funny goings-on, however, negate much of what good plans and professional advice can give. Decisions and projects undertaken because of political expediency and short-term goals will compromise what should be a more long-term and sustainable trajectory for so deserving a city and province.

As for the CICC, I just read news reports that it may not be the main venue of the ASEAN meet anymore – with a shift to, or sharing with, the Shangri-La Resort at Mactan. Many are not happy with its aesthetics either and are worried about its structural integrity. The architectural profession is concerned now with the conduct of competitions and whether it is worth it to get involved with the government at all (not just in Cebu) when it comes to contributing creatively to design solutions for real, long-term needs of citizens.

Haste makes waste, not just in building structures but also in reworking the framework of our political and cultural lives. In tweaking our constitution or changing city skylines, there is much sense in making sure the process is not rushed, that all stakeholders are involved, that accountability is in place and that what is produced ultimately adds value to people’s lives.
Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at Paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com
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