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The cost of this future

/ 04:20 AM November 08, 2019

As you enter the main campus of Xavier University—the first of the Philippine Ateneos to gain university status—you are greeted by a cool tree-lined pathway that leads straight to the Immaculate Conception Chapel. To your left, beyond the mahogany trees, is a graceful stone building called the Science Center, designed by renowned Filipino architect Felipe Mendoza. Turn right and you’ll find Museo de Oro, considered one of the region’s best, and nearby is Lucas Hall, built in 1935 and which survived a World War II bombing.

This historic and verdant campus has long been a cherished landmark not just in Cagayan de Oro but also throughout Mindanao. Today, however, majority of it is at risk of being sold to a real estate developer intending to convert it to a “Central Business District.” It is a clear illustration of how burgeoning locales in the country are sacrificing their real treasures in the name of so-called development.

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One recalls the cutting of at least 60 pine trees in Baguio to make way for a mall’s “Sky Park” in 2015. Meanwhile, across the province of Cebu, various heritage houses were demolished in recent years, including the 98-year-old Bonpua House and Museum. The building was knocked down despite the existence of local and national heritage laws that should have protected it. In a letter, the latest owners contended that they had “all rights to develop [their] property, which in this case is to build a hotel to serve the growing tourism sector in Oslob.”

The loss of local heritage assets is hardly a new concern, but it should be a more crucial one today. Even setting aside sentimentality and nostalgia, we are rife with real, substantial reasons to preserve these treasures.

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To begin with, our heritage assets are irreplaceable markers of history. The destruction of one is the destruction of decades’ worth of information that simply cannot be replicated in a new blueprint.

Why is this important? Because in our continual effort to learn from our past and evolution, physical proofs aid our limited collective memory. Something that lasts through generations—a building, a painting, a tree—serves as a snapshot of our stories so that they can stand the test of time. They are the anchors to our oral and written histories: Here is where the first class was held, here is where the bombs were dropped.

Heritage sites are also essential in keeping the soul of a community. As long as there are places that awe us by their art and architecture, as long as there are hallowed grounds where people can find quiet and solitude, as long as there are symbols that unite us with our ancestors and neighbors, humanity can persist. It means we are not ruled purely by cold numbers and economics; we are kept humane by the inspiration, peace and meaning we find in these small pockets in our city.

There are material considerations that are salient as well. Turning a peaceful cultural site into a district of iron and concrete could worsen two existing problems: traffic congestion and urban heat. In the case of Xavier University, the lush greenery in the main campus is arguably a major factor why downtown Cagayan de Oro has not become a total heat island (yet?).

History, humanity and environmental value should be enough reasons to protect our heritage sites, instead of throwing them away willy-nilly to some bidder. Sadly, such views are often labeled antidevelopment, as if there are no alternatives, as if the sole measures of development are cemented courtyards and glass-front shops. “We’re progressing to the future,” they might tell us. But what is the cost of this future?

Documents show that the initial offer for the Xavier University campus sale was P3.5 billion, plus another P1.5 billion over 10 years. Hefty figures to gain, but the real price is a loss to us: the inevitable spoiling of this rich cultural spot should the conversion push through. The same may be said of the numerous cultural legacies throughout the country that are at risk of being reduced to a mere business transaction, ground to rubble and made to vanish forever.

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TAGS: “Sky Park”, architect Felipe Mendoza, education, Immaculate Conception, Xavier University
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