It was the turn of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim to answer questions from journalists at the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel last Monday after former President Joseph Estrada, his rival in the mayoralty race, criticized him and his city administration at the same breakfast forum the Monday before. He answered point by point the accusations made against him by Erap and by Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, the latter’s running mate. Lim was accompanied by his own running mate, top councilor Lou Veloso, who is also an actor like Moreno.
In reply to accusations that Manila, the nation’s capital, is “decaying,” the mayor asked his audience to look out the huge windows of the 27th-floor penthouse of the hotel. “Look at all those high-rise buildings sprouting all over Manila,” he said pointing, “can you call that decaying?” Indeed, tall buildings could be seen all around.
Lim explained that land developers stayed away from Manila because of an old city ordinance that limited the height of buildings in the city. When Lim called them together to ask why they were not constructing in Manila, they replied that if they stayed within the height limit set by the ordinance, they would lose money.
“What about the National Building Code, does it set any limit?” he asked.
“No limit” was the reply.
“Then follow the National Building Code, not the ordinance,” he said, adding that he would have that ordinance repealed.
Since then, high-rise buildings have begun sprouting all over Manila.
The crown jewel of his projects is a financial center at the decaying Port Area, behind the DPWH building. A Korean consortium, which has built entire cities in other countries, plans to construct office buildings, hotels, condominiums and shopping centers in the area now occupied by warehouses. At an earlier forum, Lim had shown pictures of how the Port Area would look like once the project is finished, a minicity of tall gleaming buildings. He said the Koreans will erect there the tallest building in the Philippines, and one of the tallest in Asia.
Besides being the city’s financial center, the project will also attract tourists who will be brought in by cruise ships that will dock at South Harbor. He said there are plans to shift cargo loading/unloading from South Harbor to the Port of Batangas, not only to decongest the Port Area but also to rid Manila’s streets of the giant container van trucks clogging narrow city streets. With cargo ships shifted to Batangas, South Harbor will be left to passenger ships.
(I have seen one such redevelopment of a port area in Sydney, Australia. The area, now called The Rocks, has five-star hotels and shopping/entertainment centers. It is now a top tourist attraction.)
When finished, Manila’s financial center will need 150,000 workers—managers and employees, tourism people, maintenance workers, service providers, etc. While under construction, the center will need construction workers, architects and engineers, thus creating jobs for Metro Manila’s unemployed. Lim added that the investors will bring in the billions of dollars needed for the project, not borrow them from local banks.
He said the investors will turn everything—buildings and all—to the Philippine government after 50 years. During that time, they would be paying lease to the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), the owner of the land.
He said he has shown the plans to President Aquino who liked it and endorsed it to the executive secretary. If it is that good, what’s holding it up? Answer: the PPA, which is hemming and hawing on the project for unknown reasons.
Lim also revealed that the Escolta will be transformed into a pedestrian-only shopping center (no vehicles allowed), like Ginza in Tokyo during weekends. Downtown Manila, like Avenida Rizal and Quezon Boulevard will be upgraded, Lim said.
Right now, the tallest building in Manila so far is in the adjoining Chinatown.
To renew other areas in the city, the government will give tax incentives to land developers and property owners for the upgrading of their neighborhoods.
For squatters in the city, there would be relocation sites outside the city and medium-rise buildings within the city.
To address the traffic congestion, Manila will be off-limits to provincial buses, but the city government will operate a 50-bus transportation company to ferry passengers from the provincial bus terminals to their destinations inside the city. The best news is that the city buses will charge only half of the prevailing rates. That should discourage other bus companies from competing in the city. More buses will be added to the Manila-operated fleet as needed.
Answering the claim of Erap and Moreno that they have copies of Lim’s order to the police to prevent bingo games, Lim asked: “Did it say arrest Moreno et al.?” Look at the dates, he said, the order to the police was issued many months before Moreno and councilors were arrested during a bingo game. How could I know that Moreno would be holding a bingo game months later, he asked.
Lim narrated that the police received complaints that a bingo game was holding up traffic in a neighborhood. When a police team went there to stop the game, Vice Mayor Moreno arrived and intervened. He told the operator to continue and he participated in the game. Then he told the policemen: “All right, arrest me.” So the police arrested him. He dared the police to arrest him, so they did.
In return, Lim made his own accusation: The Ombudsman is investigating a Commission on Audit report that Moreno bought 5,616 sacks of rice worth P7.3 million and paid a cash advance (not by check) from the city treasury. The COA is also asking why the rice was bought without the required public bidding.