The office walls of the headquarters of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) in Clark Global City are adorned with a mix of inspirational quotes and motivational sayings, from Albert Einstein to Jan Gehl, a Danish architect. “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer,” says 18th century Frenchman Charles Alexandre de Calonne on one wall, summing up what must be the BCDA’s approach to tackling enormous projects. The work vibe is more Google than government agency, and you’ll find Catan board games next to treadmills, neither of which look like they get much use. The office is only a year old, and transferring part of its operations from BGC, the agency is setting an example of decentralizing state offices in the capital.
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President and CEO Vince Dizon moved his family even earlier, shortly after he was appointed head of the agency in August 2016. Dizon, of course, has to be in Clark to supervise the ongoing, simultaneous construction of the new passenger terminal of Clark International Airport in Mabalacat, Pampanga, and phase 1 of New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac, which will host the coming SEA Games, a mere couple of weeks away. The media has started to descend upon Clark, and Dizon has been very accommodating, proudly showing off the buds of his brand-new city, allaying any Fyre Festival-inspired fears of visitors having to sleep in emergency tents.
Less than 18 months
The athlete’s village, a functional block of dorm units, is ready for occupancy, and Rambo Chicano, the Philippines’ bet for triathlon gold, already lives and trains there. The caldera-like stadium, with its orange and graphite seats patterned to look like the flow of lava and tar, has seen its first triathlon. The three pools at the aquatic center, which is Dizon’s favorite building, has been tested by the UP swim team. The geometric shapes of the now-iconic open-air roof of the aquatic center are taken from fishing nets, while the ceiling panes and angled lines reference the capiz frames of Pampanga’s parols. The recurring theme, which can be found across buildings, from the stadium supports to the airport’s new ceiling, is the trademark of Budji+Royal, the architecture and design firm behind pretty much the entire New Clark City.
The sports complex, which is part of the new National Government Administrative Center, was completed in less than 18 months, a confoundingly short amount of time considering the glacial pace of construction we’re used to in this country. A hard deadline staring down at them did help get things firing on all cylinders. The sports facilities were initially slated for later phases of New Clark City, but BCDA moved the timeline up to accommodate the SEA Games. Now it’s just a matter of patching up the grass, sweeping debris off the road, hanging the signage, basically fine-tuning the area for a picture-perfect finish.
And really, Dizon seems pretty relaxed for someone in charge of a city where all eyes will be focused on in two weeks. The bespectacled BCDA head does have a wizard-like quality about him, popping in and out of the complex to deal with a contractor here, thank a landscaper there. I thought we’d be greeted by a frenzy of construction and overworked laborers pulling overnight shifts—and we all know what happened in 1981 when a building was rushed to be completed in time for an international film festival. But things were under control in this one, and the pace of work was constant, but not panicked. Unless Dizon is hiding dead bodies underneath the bleachers, he’s managing an impressive job. So, what exactly does it take to pull off something like this?
“It takes a lot of sheer will. I think that’s what the President and his government have. The will and boldness to get things done as fast as possible,” Dizon says.The idea for New Clark City was hatched during the previous administration. Arnel Casanova, former BCDA chief, pitched a project called Clark Green City in 2012. Taking inspiration particularly from Singapore, Casanova envisioned a new city with wide pedestrian lanes, lots of trees, and no gated communities. In 2015, Aecom, a global infrastructure firm that has worked on Singapore’s Marina Bay, New York’s One World Trade Center, and several smart cities in China, won the competition for its conceptual master plan of what is now called New Clark City.
“When we came in and saw this project, we thought it was such a great idea,” Dizon says. “It wasn’t hard to get off the ground, because the president decided quickly. He said, you’ve got to do this fast.” Japanese firms JOIN and Nippon Koei took part in completing the masterplan, which was tweaked to sync up with the government’s larger Build Build Build program, while Singapore consulting firm Surbana Jurong came in as a development manager. Suffice it to say that the BCDA is working with several partners with a lot of experience in putting up cities.
“It will probably take 25 years or more to develop this city fully. What we’re trying to do now is start it, and start it in the right way. Be truthful to the masterplan, and make sure we have the most important things right at the beginning, which is the infrastructure. Make sure we’re not just building for cars, but for people.” Dizon’s optimism is infectious, and I’m almost sold on moving to Clark to train for triathlons, too. Dizon talks about it being an inclusive city, one that everyone can enjoy, from the old to the young, the haves and the have-nots, with no ghettos or enclaves. “We’re trying to avoid what happened to BGC.”
A lot of new developments have been touted as green, smart, or the city of the future. But it is at Clark where a connected public park system is a primary feature of the masterplan, not an afterthought. Together, all the green spaces from Clark Global to New Clark City will equal at least three times the size of Central Park in Manhattan. It is at Clark where an airport commuter train will run (built by the Japanese), so passengers can go directly to Metro Manila and vice versa without needing a car—you know, like they do in Hong Kong and Singapore.
It is at Clark where a connected public park system is a primary feature of the masterplan, not an afterthought. Together, all the green spaces from Clark Global to New Clark City will equal at least three times the size of Central Park in Manhattan.
“At this point in time we’re just playing catch-up to the infrastructure that should have been built decades ago,” Dizon says. “Hopefully once we’ve caught up, we can start building for the future.”
One of the other exciting news to come out of BCDA is the promise of faster, cheaper internet. The agency has nearly completed its part of the Luzon Bypass Infrastructure Project, which consist of two cable landing stations, one in La Union and the other in Baler, connected by a 250-km long cable network corridor. Facebook is almost done constructing a submarine cable system that will stretch from the west coast of the United States to these cable stations, enabling them to bypass the Luzon Strait, where undersea earthquakes often cause the cables to break. In exchange for using the stations, Facebook will provide the Philippine government with spectrum equivalent to at least 2 million Mbps. The lure of bigger bandwidth should not make us forget the havoc the social media giant wreaked when it “gave” the Philippines free Facebook. However, these concerns are moot since the US Justice Department has blocked the cable, citing security concerns over its Chinese partner. In the meantime, we’re stuck with the duopoly.
Questioned by the senate
Dizon is only 45 years old but already in charge of some of the largest billion and trillion-peso infra projects in this country. A few months ago, he was named Presidential Adviser for Flagship Programs and Projects, effectively making him the face of the administration’s grand Build Build Build program and putting him directly in the crosshairs of its critics.
Just a day after our site visit, Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon declared Build Build Build “a dismal failure” for having only nine projects underway. The Flagship list has grown to 100 projects, with some unwieldly projects and potential white elephants replaced with more realistic ones. Dizon countered the Senator’s claim, pointing out that 22 of the 100 are already partially operational or substantially completed, and promising that by 2022 or end of the President’s term, 38 will have been completed. The rest are in various stages of implementation, government approval, and advanced feasibility studies, all intended to be carried over by the succeeding administration.
Dizon is not a politician but he does know his way around government, having worked behind the scenes since Ramos was president. Straight out of college, he joined the Senate as an economic researcher, becoming Senator Edgardo Angara’s Chief of Staff in 2002. He held the position of undersecretary for political affairs for two years during Pnoy’s term. Before he was appointed head of BCDA, Dizon was a consultant for then Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano. He has also spent a few years in the private sector and a few years as an economics lecturer at his alma mater De La Salle and in Prague.
“Being exposed to both the legislature and the executive, I got a better idea of how government works, how to navigate through the complex maze of bureaucracy,” Dizon says. “My job is to get these projects up and running with our implementing agencies, work with them, coordinate and facilitate, in terms of government processes and where the bottlenecks are.” The attention to detail required for complex projects like these, especially working with architects and designers, was honed during his time with Sen. Angara. “He was strict and so meticulous with his work. The work ethic he builds in his staff allows you to straddle private and government very easily.”
“Being exposed to both the legislature and the executive, I got a better idea of how government works, how to navigate through the complex maze of bureaucracy,” Dizon says.
“Vince’s leadership and managerial skills are well put at the BCDA,” says Gov. Susan Yap of Tarlac. “Such a down-to-earth workaholic. We broke ground in January 2018 and he delivered, also bringing in other investments to the area.”
Like a young Robert Moses, Dizon has wound up with the power to significantly shape our physical environment, through the building of highways, ports, and railways—but also through parks, public spaces, and transport systems that will help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. As citizens, our part is to make sure that the government’s directive to build, build, build, does not come at the cost of communities, the climate, and the cities we already live in.
Dizon is part of a new generation of young and enthusiastic government leaders who put their heads down and get the work done. He has also proven to be social media savvy, tapping some of the President’s most ardent supporters to help with publicity. With friends in all camps, he is not only in a prime position to maneuver through the gridlocks in government, but to make the most out of opportunities. “I try not to burn bridges,” he says. Instead, he builds them.
Photographs by Pat Mateo