More than a photobomber: Condo project threatens San Sebastian Church, community - experts

Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 04 2021 06:49 PM | Updated as of Mar 05 2021 07:51 PM

ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA (UPDATE) — The construction of a 31-story condominium near the 400-year-old San Sebastian Church in Manila is not only a "photobombing" issue but a looming threat as well for the basilica and the safety of the community there, heritage conservationists warned.

The supposed absence of a communication from the condominium's developers and the sudden "movement" at the construction site beginning late last year sparked concerns from the community near the church and the foundation leading the historic site's conservation.

The basilica was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure in 2011, and was listed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watchlist of Cultural Heritage at Risk in 2000 and 2010, according to the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.

Lawyer Edgardo Gayos, member of the Save San Sebastian campaign's legal team, said they were waiting for Summithome Realty Corp. to inform them about its permission for the condominium project located 75 meters away from the basilica. 

"We have not received any word from Summithome. They have not approached us and even asked for consultation, or asked for our approval regarding the construction," Gayos told ABS-CBN News in an interview early February.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) issued a conditional clearance for the developer in July 2019, giving the green-light for the construction. But it underlined the need for a stakeholder's approval.

"A stakeholder's approval is also necessary to ensure that the development is acceptable to the community and other heritage property owners," the permit from the NCCA read. 

The developer was also able to acquire a barangay permit with "no objection" from the barangay council, a barangay resolution obtained by ABS-CBN News showed. 

The resolution, dated Sept. 4, 2018, emphasized that the tower construction should not pose danger to any residents of the community. 

"The barangay council has no objection on the construction of the 31-storey condominium dormitory. Provided that the said action holds no danger to the residents of the said community," the document read.

Gayos of the Save San Sebastian campaign said they were not informed about this beforehand. 

"There are some conditions that Summithome must comply with in order for the clearance to become effective," he said. 

ABS-CBN News is still waiting for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines's (NHCP) clarification on the issue, but in an email sent on Wednesday, the basilica's foundation said the NHCP has permitted the construction after Summithome supposedly provided proof of securing the necessary permits.

Manila City Engineer Armand Andres affirmed this, and said he sees nothing wrong with the construction because the developer complied with the documents needed. 

"Mayroon silang building permit eh... Ang nag-issue nito noong last administration pa... Kung ire-revoke mo, anong grounds?" Andres said in a phone interview.

(They have a building permit, which was issued during the last administration. If we will revoke it, on what grounds?) 

Photos sent to ABS-CBN News by a concerned party in mid-February showed the presence of what seemed to be bulldozers and cranes in the condominium property, as well as the arrival of some construction materials.

Contributed photos

Contributed photos

Contributed photos

Contributed photos

NOT JUST A 'PHOTOBOMBER'

Claire Vitug, executive director of San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc., described the movement in the property as "concerning", given that the church's restoration is underway. 

Vitug said the foundation wanted to prevent the restoration efforts to "go in vain" as she feared the nearby construction could possibly undermine it.

"[There is] a possibility that it could actually... compromise San Sebastian, along of course with other possible factors that could compromise the integrity of the building itself," Vitug said in an interview. 

"Ang fear lang kasi namin siguro dito kasi, habang ginagawa namin itong construction na ito... baka mag-compound... itong issue, itong mga mai-introduce na movements, or other factors including construction sa ginagawa namin, because we know na mayroon na talaga tayong existing problems," she added. 

(We fear that while we are doing this construction, the problems can possibly compound most especially with the movement -- the construction. We know we already have existing problems to deal with.)

For Fr. Edgar Tubio OAR, parish priest of San Sebastian, the problem is no longer about the possible "photobombing", saying the construction could threaten the very structure of the basilica and the community's safety.

"Imagine, kung hindi ako nagkamali, yung building na itatayo ay 75 meters away from the church. So yung vibration, ay parang mayroon atang sigurong impact doon sa structural integrity ng simbahan," said Tubio. 

(This building is some 75 meters away from the church. So, imagine the vibration's impact on the church's structural integrity.) 

"We don't worry too much about the photobomber... We worry too much about the safety of our people, the structural integrity of our church. and of course, the nearby houses or buildings," the priest said.

ABS-CBN News has tried seeking the comment of the developer through some channels, but has yet to receive a response as of this story's posting.

ABS-CBN News also sent a message to the University Home Recto's Facebook page, requesting for an interview, but has yet to get a reply.

The units of the 31-floor University Home Recto project are currently open for pre-selling, according to its real estate agents.

'SHADY BUSINESS OF INTEREST'

Situated in the bustling streets of Pasaja del Carmen on Quiapo in Manila, San Sebastian Basilica remains as one of the few structures in the world made entirely by steel, according to anthropologist and cultural heritage expert Dr. Fernando Zialcita.

The basilica also houses Our Lady of Mt. Carmel de San
Sebastian, considered as one of Quiapo’s beloved images, as it plays a central role during the annual Black Nazarene Traslacion through the traditional "Dungaw."

The image of Nuestra Señora del Carmen de San Sebastian watches from the San Sebastian Church for the "Dungaw" during the Traslacion of the image of the Black Nazarene on Jan. 9, 2020. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

This is one of the reasons why the church's dignity can also somehow be affected by the construction, said Zialcita, emphasizing that the condominium's development "highlights a shady business of interest." 

"A church, like a temple or a mosque, is a place where people, the community gather, 'di ba? Important siya as a landmark kasi not everything naman is equally important visually in the city," the expert explained. 

"There are certain places na importante for the community, whether it is a simbahan, mosque or a temple... Nasasapawan," he added. 

(This is important as a landmark... There are certain places important in the community, whether it is a church, mosque, or temple... but are overshadowed.)

Samantha Pacardo, the San Sebastian foundation's fundraising and communications manager, expressed her concern on the common hazards that the construction site could bring near the heritage site. 

"We are also talking about the neighborhood... [It was] mentioned there (forum) changes to the ground water levels, the vibrations... possible dust or fire hazards, excavation, and the demolition activities themselves," Pacardo said, citing a discussion by Dr. Lessandro Garciano, former director and now the treasurer of the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines.

"These are specific scenarios that could really endanger the church as well as the people around it because.... close by are homes," she said. 

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ISSUE 'WILL NOT DIE' ANYTIME SOON

Despite a slight similarity with the construction of Torre de Manila, also in Manila, in 2015, which the Supreme Court allowed after junking the petition of the Knights of Rizal stopping it, the heritage conservationists said they have not lost hope.

The San Sebastian foundation's Vitug said they are "motivated," and they would not take the controversy sitting down given the support they are getting. 

She emphasized that while they remain positive for the time being, the foundation still keeps in mind some prevailing realities.

"Itong adbokasiya, I don't think this will die anytime soon... Ang isang layunin din nitong petition ay sana ma-inspire natin ang ating policy-makers and decision-makers na magkaroon tayo o mabigyan tayo ng mga polisiya para maproteksyonan hindi lang ang San Sebastian [but] all other heritage sites all around the country," she said. 

(I don't think our advocacy will die anytime soon... One of the petition's goals is to also inspire our policy-makers, decision-makers to have a policy that will protect not only San Sebastian but all other heritage sites all around the country.) 

Gayos of the Save San Sebastian campaign pointed out that the Torre de Manila case was mostly concerned on the sightline of the Rizal monument, while their uneasiness on the Recto high-rise building is more of a safety issue. 

"We have a different sets of facts... Unlike the Rizal Monument, wala siyang residence, there are no houses inside [it] that will be affected... Safety ang concern natin dito," the lawyer said. 

"We are not losing hope on this. I think there's wiggle room with respect to the interpretation of the laws na involved in this protection of heritage sites."

Pacardo, the group's communication manager, described the community's prevailing sentiment as a "universal call for help." 

"Safety is something na everybody wants. It is a very basic human right... More people... really need to pay attention because it's about people's houses, people's lives, [and] safety of this church that is possibly threatened by what is happening," she said. 
 
Andres, Manila's city engineer, said that the decision on whether the construction should proceed still lies with the NHCP. 

"'Pag hindi nila sinunod (conditions), puwede silang anuhan ng NHCP... They will recommend... kami ang nag-i-issue ng permit, hindi naman sila eh," Andres said.

(If the developer has not complied with the conditions, the NHCP will deal with them. We only issued the permit, but they will recommend the necessary action to us.) 

Pacardo said those who want to express support to their campaign can join an ongoing online petition.