'Imagineering' Pandacan

By Buddy Gomez

Posted at Dec 04 2014 01:45 AM | Updated as of Dec 04 2014 06:50 PM

Metro Manila is in a self-strangulation mode with no relief in sight. Manila is in suicidal suffocation. And don’t we know it. The metropolis is dying!

While none of the local governments involved nor the national leadership have announced any conscious attempt to rescue the metropolis from its malais by way of intelligently planned decongestion and population dispersal, the Supreme Court came out swinging last week when it ordered the closure and relocation of the Pandacan oil depot, owned and operated by the big three oil companies--Chevron, Petron and Shell. Small beginnings, perhaps. But its impact is of lasting significance.

Beyond the constitutionality issue of the City Ordinance (allowing a hazard to continue existing in a very densely populated neighborhood) that was adjudicated last week by our Supreme Court lies the common sense activism that declared use of a particular property and its occupancy no longer relevant as to its location.

The Supreme Court, in fact, dabbled in municipal zoning which ought to have been the province properly addressed by duly elected politicians sitting as administrators, as mayor and councilors. A particular responsibility in which the locals are miserable failures, it took the high court to knock sense into their collective intellectual limitations. And the decision has lessons for the affected community as well.

Urban renewal, slum clearance and rehousing are concepts in progressive community maintenance and development that very seldom, if at all, come within the ken of a local government unit’s leadership, most especially in Metro Manila. Government’s power of eminent domain is inevitably part of the menu but it is virtually a dead letter.

I am certain that in some unrecognized and under-appreciated nook and corner of the bureaucracy, there are frustrated urban planners and architects. They long for their education and talents to be harnessed but for the overweening mindset and power of politicians whose all pervading concern in life is the next election. Period.

The painful reality, of course, is that the local politicians in Metro Manila will not be in positions of power and pelf had it not been for the presence and proliferation of squatters in their electoral districts, bastion and source of incorrigibly unthinking voters. The very population that is the object of renewal and clearance form the seemingly immovable impediment to community improvement and progress. Local politicians and squatters simply feed upon each other. That indeed is a pernicious cycle of criminal connivance. If legislation seem an impossibility, maybe its conquest could also be in the hands of the Supreme Court. Sometime and somehow in the coming tomorrows, perhaps.

The gentlemen who brought this issue to the Supreme Court lawyers Vladimir Cabigao and Samson Alcantara (representing Manileno Kontra Abuso and Social Justice Society) deserve commendation for their activism. The ruling they sought and won ought to inspire them (and others) to be the overt and public face of Metro Manila’s battle against its self-inflicted urban infirmities.

It is not the intent of this blog to foist the occasional ideas and solutions here presented to be the end all and be all, much less the ‘or else,’ to the urban problems that form Metro Manila’s daily calvary. We simply aim to expose the reality that imagination, innovation and out-of-the box thinking can provide the choices from which to select the best solutions possible. Let us call it “Imagineering.” It is a titillation of the mind to think and likewise, a challenge.

The future redevelopment of the Pandacan depot, all 33 hectares of it, is now open to speculation by an uninformed public. What will it be? How will it be? Manila has just been handed a singular opportunity by the Supreme Court. How will Manila handle this chance at community and environmental betterment? Will the Pandacan redevelopment approval of plans, permits and licenses be prone to the same alleged systematic graft and corruption a la Binay/Makati? Transparency and public accountability had better be on public display as well, every step of the way. An exemplar is now in the hands of Manila. Let us wish devoutly that these hands are not inept.

There is an existing housing/commercial complex in the Lai Chi Kok area of Hong Kong fronting Kowloon Bay. It can provide Pandacan a template for its redevelopment. Mobil Oil used to have this Kowloon Bay frontage depot/terminal storage for petroleum products. Over time, the facility found itself surrounded by urban sprawl, (just like Pandacan) and thus in the mid-60s, Mobil decided to relocate and on the vacated acreage made way for Hong Kong's first massive private housing estate. This became known as “Mei Foo Sun Chuen.”

In the late 1970s, living in Hong Kong, I used to visit friends who were renters in a flat in that complex. At that time, I recall it said that it was the world’s largest private housing estate. “Mei Foo” is indeed a high-rise township! Around 95 towers of 20 stories each, erected upon a podium of three or four levels, over the estate’s footprint. This podium offers parking for automobiles and moorings for marine-borne crafts, food markets, shopping arcades, supermarkets, medical clinics and salons, restaurants, bus and taxi terminals, convenience stores and even schools and offices. Of course, a post office and police station. I approximate that Mei Foo must have at least 12,000 condo housing units and a population of some 40,000 to 45,000. Google just might have the correct stats.

It just might be possible that one or all of the big three oil companies of Pandacan have not kept themselves uninformed about the existence of Mei Foo Sun Chuen as a potential model. The wheel need not be reinvented, after all. Adjustments to suit and some tweaking will be most facile and useful. Manila Mayor Erap had better send Vice Mayor Isko over to Kowloon, too.

Pandacan must be redeveloped as a consolidated whole and not on a piece-meal basis for a variety of sane considerations and always in relation to its immediate vicinity’s needs and deficiencies. It is an opportunity, thanks to the Supreme Court, for Manila to rise from the grime of deleterious urbanization.

Of prime and ultimate importance to this observer is how this forthcoming housing/commercial complex will utilize and maximize its Pasig River frontage and how Manila can take a leadership position in solving its own home-grown malais.

Sometime soon, let us do some ‘imagineering.’ For example, let us ponder upon Pasig River as a potential solution for Metro Manila motor traffic gridlock, from an out-of-the box vantage point.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.