It’s a marvel that such a thing as the San Sebastian Basilica exists in the heart of the city’s gritty University Belt. We expect smog, noise, and traffic to accompany one of the busiest districts of the city, but what we don’t expect is this turn-of-the-century Neo-Gothic triumph, its spires jutting skyward like the chin of a proud beauty. San Sebastian is an original—with interiors hand-painted by Ysabelo Tampinco and Felix Martinez, two artists who eventually figured among the country’s best turn-of-the-century artisans. Its stained glass windows by Henri Oidtmann share provenance with collections in the Vatican Museum in Rome and the Victoria and Albert in London. It’s a bit of Europe on our very own streets, and it’s the fifth church to be built on the same spot—the only one that’s withstood earthquakes that levelled everything that came before it.
Unlike previous cathedrals, San Sebastian is an all-metal church. It was meant to survive tremors shaking the silty soil it was built on, though it’s barely been able to survive time and its hardened agents: rust, leaks, and age. Today, time’s the least of its worries. A new threat to the neighborhood has just arrived. It’s a soon-to-rise tarp on a lot in Calle San Sebastian endorsing a new development by Summithome Realty Corporation. The corporation promises a residential building thirty one storeys high, on a lot some hundred steps away from the church. Like the Torre de Manila hovering over Luneta, this new development could diminish the value of the national treasure and historical landmark. Renowned anthropologist Dr. Fernando Nakpil-Zialcita bristles at the thought. “It’s a Godzilla tower rising from hell,” he says. “It will really overshadow the church. Mawawalan ng dignidad ang simbahan.” Taken on its own, the basilica more than deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but with the Summithome development, its chances of such a designation seem impossible. “We want San Sebastian on the UNESCO list because we want to bring more prestige to the country, more tourists,” Dr. Zialcita continues, “Masisira because UNESCO is very strict about its siting. The church has to be admired in its majesty, if you’re going to construct any tall building—even a building taller than the San Sebastian Church—wala na.”
For Tina Paterno, Executive Director of the San Sebastian Conservation and Development Foundation, the new developers need to consider the heritage value of the basilica. “It needs to reconcile its designs,” she says, “it needs to study the impact of its foundations on nearby structures.” Any impact would hit the basilica hard, she continues. Quiapo was built on estuaries, making its soil silty and vulnerable to any trauma. Paterno, who has been involved with the conservation of the basilica for close to ten years, can perhaps see what we can’t—the full impact of a poorly-studied and poorly-considered development that, as far as we can see, is rushing toward construction. When asked how this new development might affect the basilica’s listing as a world heritage site, Paterno answers: “Right now, there are many regulations that need to be in place before we actually apply for it, and they’re not there yet. We’re not there yet. And this will kill our chances, no questions asked.”
Considering that San Sebastian is a cultural treasure, the Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) is required to provide a certificate that has considered aesthetic impact within this heritage zone. Paterno mentions that in other countries, there are clear zoning regulations backed by the government, protecting the value of their heritage sites. “When you take photos in other countries, you’re fully able to appreciate historic sites because there are no photobombers.” There are no such zoning regulations in place here. Photobombers, by way of new developments, are well on the rise. “People have this idea of heritage folks being anti-progress, and it’s not really that—we’re anti-unregulated development,” she says.
Impact on the San Sebastian Community
If a UNESCO listing counts among the loftier goals of heritage advocates and conservators, perhaps the most important thing the new developers must consider is the impact of this development on the community around the church.
Calle San Sebastian is a quaint and charming street, literally around the corner from the basilica. It is the location of the Iturralde home, a historic old house standing just a few meters away from the lot where the residential tower is to be constructed. It’s a charming street, thanks to the residents’ devotion to its upkeep. They sweep the streets religiously at five in the morning, they look after each other and call each other by name.
The residents are bewildered that Summithome was able to acquire a barangay clearance supporting their application for a building permit from the barangay chairman. They weren’t all informed about the matter, and wonder how this slipped past their knowledge.
Two residents we were able to speak with were raised on this street. One of them, Nicky Legaspi, owns a carinderia that services residents. He’s understandably upset by this new development. “Ang piling po nila, ang drilling po nila, ang excavation po nila will definitely disturb the foundation of the street,” he says, showing us the development site. Paul Iturralde, whose family owns one of the oldest homes on the street, is visibly angered by the issue. “It’s going to block our sunlight,” he says, “it’s going to block our air. And where will they throw all the sewage and trash?”
All these are very real concerns considering that the high-rise promises an influx of 900 residents coming into a barangay of 1200 constituents. How can this small, beleaguered barangay possibly accommodate this seventy five percent rise in their population?
Young advocate groups like Kapitbahayan sa Calle Bautista have also rallied behind the cause. A young spokesperson chimed in on the issue: “The unique character of the place is going to be destroyed,” she says. “Heritage is not only about the structure but about the neighborhood, the people, the community. If you want to come in as a new neighbor, we can welcome you, but you have to be a good neighbor.” Whether or not Summithome is one such neighbor remains to be seen, but it’s a stretch to believe that a small barangay can accommodate such a huge strain on their resources.
The Legal Angle
There are also people who are looking at new and creative ways to protect the basilica and the community around it . Attorney Mark Evidente, Heritage Director and President of the Heritage Conservation Society, figures among them. Learning from the Torre De Manila incident, Attorney Evidente argues that it’s the settings that add to the significance of heritage sites like San Sebastian. If the settings are compromised, the value of cultural landmarks is diminished. At the time of this writing, Attorney Evidente has just filed a petition with the NCCA, asking the government agency—which has declared the San Sebastian basilica a national treasure—to expand its declaration to include its settings and sightlines in order to protect the basilica’s “historical, cultural, religious, and spiritual significance.”
If this petition is approved, then this community will be safe from outside developments, and the basilica could slowly but surely be on its way to a UNESCO designation.
City Administrator, Attorney Ericson Alcovendaz, assures the community that the developers have yet to procure a building permit. All they have, he says, is an application for the construction of the high-rise structure. The city is waiting on all the other clearances still to be issued from other government agencies. “One requirement the city is asking for is the barangay clearance in support of the developers’ application for a building permit,” he says. Since the high-rise is set to be built behind a heritage site, the developers need to get clearance from the NCCA. Given that barangay clearance was given without the full consent of the community, hopes now rest on whether or not the developers get clearance from the government agency.
Despite assurances from the city spokesperson about the city carefully considering building plans and the safety of the community, we must remember that other clearances have been issued without their full knowledge. There’s no time like the present to be vigilant about our heritage sites, and the dreams and innovations that went into building them. If San Sebastian was built to withstand earthquakes and time, falling into the wrong hands is the closest calamity it now stands to face.