Legacy mode

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Picture this: 28 kilometers of jogging paths, 78 km of bicycle lanes with a 12-km dedicated bike highway, and 14 kilometers of waterfront promenade from which to watch the magnificent sunset over Manila Bay, all for free to the public.

The lanes will gird 70 hectares of open parks where concerts and similar activities can be staged. The parks will not be fenced off, unlike the bayfront along Roxas Boulevard in Manila that cordons off the high-maintenance dolomite beach.

Glenn Ang, who was appointed president of SM Smart City Infrastructure and Development Corp. in November last year, categorically told me last week that there would be no SM mall in the planned new reclamation area, although the three islands would of course be connected to SM’s Mall of Asia complex.

Instead the SM group will partner with two or three top universities, providing and maintaining the infrastructure on the new reclaimed area for extensions of their schools, research centers and medical facilities.

As far back as 2012, Ang said the Sy clan – the country’s richest according to Forbes – was already considering a legacy project, a way of giving back for their immense blessings. A proposal of the Pasay City government provided the opportunity.

High-rise buildings will be discouraged on the three inter-connected reclaimed islands in Manila Bay that SM will develop and maintain, at no cost to the government or the public, since monetization is not the primary objective, Ang said.

There could be food outlets on the islands, but these cannot be on high-rises. The rentals and lease payments will go to the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) and Pasay City governments, which will own the reclaimed land and will be allocated certain areas whose use will be at their discretion. Whether the two government agencies will limit the commercialization of their allocated spaces will be up to state regulators.

There will be two kilometers of “living shorelines” to ensure the proper flow of water, on top of the natural channels in Libertad in Pasay and Baclaran in Parañaque. Dutch technology is being tapped to prevent the project from causing flooding in the two cities, and a “wave wall” is designed to break the impact of storm surges.

Skeptics may not trust any altruistic claims of the country’s uber wealthy. But if there’s a family that may be able to persuade the public about being on legacy mode and wanting to give back, it will be the Sys.

Unfortunately for the family, their legacy project is currently in limbo, bogged down in the jumble of controversies involving reclamation activities in the bay.

And unfortunately for all the proponents, reclamation, like mining, is never pretty. The proponents must sell to a leery public the idea that (as described by an SM member) reclamation is like making sausages: it looks awful while in production, but the finished product is good.

It’s uncertain if the suspension can be lifted piecemeal, if the SM project passes an ongoing assessment.

Business groups have warned that the mess has become a cautionary tale for investors studying prospects in the Philippines.

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The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is conducting an assessment of 22 reclamation projects in Manila Bay. The DENR assessment will involve “trans-disciplinary work,” according to a statement from the Presidential Communications Office, with “inputs from social scientists, communities, experts and academicians.”

Apart from the social scientists, the DENR will tap the expertise of oceanographers, climate scientists, geologists and other physical scientists, the Malacañang statement declared.

All 22 projects were approved between 2019 and 2021 by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, who in 2018 had ordered Boracay shut down at the height of the summer travel season because he said the water smelled like “s**t” and the island had turned into a “cesspool.”

The DENR said only three of the 22 Manila Bay projects are ongoing; the rest are going through various stages of the approval process. Fisherfolk, on the other hand, say reclamation work has started in other projects, disrupting their livelihoods and causing flooding in affected communities. Did proponents of these projects get clearance to proceed from the PRA?

All reclamation activities in the bay are supposed to be suspended, but a TV report showed work continuing in one project.

Environment advocates surely welcome the suspension order and the thorough review being carried out by the DENR. But in countries with coherent policies, the process is reversed: the multidisciplinary assessment comes first, not of each project application, but of the long-term policy on bay reclamation.

The basic question should have been answered first, based on multi-stakeholder consultations: do we want further reclamation in Manila Bay? If yes, what would be the impact of the policy on different aspects of life? Should decisions on reclamation be allowed piecemeal, with local government units authorized to solicit proposals and give the green light for specific projects? Does the bay belong to any particular LGU? Since local executives serve for only three years, with no certainty of reelection, their decisions can be overturned with a change of administration.

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A decade ago, the Pasay government decided it wanted to allow the expansion of its reclaimed area, and proposed a public-private partnership, which drew an offer from the SM Group. The offer was subjected to a Swiss challenge. When rival Ayala Land failed to submit a counter-proposal, SM became the joint venture partner of Pasay for a 300-hectare reclamation project costing P54.5 billion, to be fully financed by SM and targeted for completion in seven years.

This was back in 2013. SM also later bagged a reclamation deal for another 360 hectares with the Parañaque government. The two projects went through a decade of vetting by over a dozen government agencies including the DENR.

SM got the formal clearance to proceed from Pasay in 2019, but the pandemic forced the suspension of all work, and it turned out that it needed a final green light from the PRA. This was granted in 2021. By that time, however, other developers including a Davao-based group had jumped into the fray and wanted, literally, their own pieces of the bay.

A project near the US embassy includes the destruction of the area behind the Quirino Grandstand that houses Ocean Park. The project was denounced by the embassy for the involvement of a state-owned Chinese firm blacklisted by the US government in 2020 for its participation in artificial island building in the South China Sea.

Following the US denunciation, President Marcos suspended all reclamation projects in the bay.

This controversy has become a showcase of the many ills plaguing our country.

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