Katipunan blues

My granddaughter, 10-year-old Julia, jolted me the other day with a remark on the state of Quezon City where she has lived all her life. As we entered the narrow street linking the Marikina side of Aurora Boulevard to Katipunan Avenue, she glanced at the ongoing “SM Blue Residences” construction spanning the entire left side of that alley and grimly declared: “I am against more tall buildings like that.” It was a political statement from out of the blue – the first I’ve heard from the mouth of this babe.

A student at Miriam, Julia finds herself stewing in traffic everyday as her school bus wends its way through Katipunan’s increasingly dysfunctional traffic. I remember this avenue back in the ’60s as the greenest and coolest stretch of road one could find in the city. Only a handful of rich students went to school in cars. Most took the bus or lived in dormitories. There were no gated villages then except Alta Vista to the south and La Vista to the north. Katipunan served mainly as the link between the sprawling campus of the University of the Philippines and the beautiful Loyola Heights campuses of Maryknoll and Ateneo.

Something happened in the early ’80s however. The student population rose exponentially, reflecting the new prosperity funded by overseas workers’ remittances. New gated communities started to sprout in the green zones bordering the triangle formed by the three schools of Diliman and Loyola, their main selling point being precisely their proximity to these prestigious institutions. Where residential neighborhoods multiply, the commercial establishments could not be far behind. In the beginning, these were small one or two-story shops that primarily serviced the needs of students. The only fast-food joint along Katipunan was Shakey’s. There was not a single billboard on this tree-lined avenue until it became part of C-5.

Despite the growing student population and the flood of economic activity it attracted, the area would have retained its natural beauty if the zoning restrictions were strictly observed, and the essential character of the place as an educational and low-density residential area was respected. But, one after the other, the small shops were torn down. In their place, bigger and taller multi-use buildings have risen above the expansive environs of Ateneo and Miriam. The current building frenzy in this part of the city exemplifies everything that is wrong with urban development in our country.

The rise across Miriam College of the 31-floor SM Berkeley Residences, which was completed in December 2010, has transformed the whole profile of Loyola Heights. Sitting on just 2,718.70 square meters of land, which would have accommodated no more than 10 middle-class bungalows in the past, SM’s Berkeley Residences packs 1,058 residential units! The entire ground floor houses other SM-owned establishments like SaveMore and Banco de Oro.

Clearly encouraged by the rise in value of these condo units, SM is building more of the same – this time on the other side of Katipunan. Calling it the “Blue Residences,” no doubt cashing in on its neighbor’s signature color, SM Development Corporation aims to deliver 41 floors of condominium units by the last quarter of 2013. Ateneo has rallied the Loyola Heights community to protest the exemption from zoning laws granted to SM. “I’m on their side,” my granddaughter informed me. She foresees that when SM’s Blue Residences become operational, the shortcut that her school bus takes from Aurora Boulevard to Katipunan will be so clogged with traffic as to make it inaccessible. But, more than this, she dreads the thought of Katipunan being walled in by skyscrapers.

All this makes one wonder if there is anyone who cares to put a halt to the wanton conversion of precious open landscapes into the kind of densely built-up commercial centers of which the box-like megamalls, “hypermarts,” and towering residences of Henry Sy have become emblematic. Do the public officials who approve his projects all over the country ever worry whether there are enough roads to carry the radical increase in traffic volume generated by these developments? Do they ever ask how these projects will affect the local water supply, the garbage disposal system, the drainage system, the noise level, peace and order, and the management of emergencies induced by fire, earthquakes and other disruptions?

How many more of these gigantic malls and high-rise residences can our cities take? This is a question not so much for Henry Sy and the other land developers like him. We don’t really expect them to see beyond the profits to be made from investments funded by the massive liquidity at their disposal. It is a question, rather, that we must address to our government and to ourselves. Is this what nation-building is – building more malls, more supermarkets, more fast-food joints, more towering beehives of cramped tiny living units? And is this what economic development is – that small entrepreneurs and shop owners must seek shelter and rent space in mega structures if they are to survive? Isn’t it a sad comment on our lack of vision that outside Metro Manila, progress is now equated with the presence of SM and Jollibee?

The reason we have a government is so that we may have an agency in which to debate and plot our collective vision of how we should live and grow as a people. To allow this vision to be shaped mainly by today’s big developers is to resign ourselves to the kind of incoherent, ugly, and unsustainable urban communities we now see all over the country.