Former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza’s Wobbly Stand Against the Manila Bay Reclamation Project

Second of a Series on Manila Bay

When I used to go to work at the Department of Tourism and then at the Philippine Senate from 2003 to 2009, my drive to and from work would always include going through heavy traffic along Roxas Boulevard.

Not once did I look forward to driving on this stretch of road for a number of reasons.  The fact that on certain days (Wednesdays, mostly) traffic would be awful is only one of the things that bothered me.  The other things that bothered me was the fact that being stuck on Roxas Boulevard meant I’d probably smell all the icky stuff that pours out of Manila’s gazillion sewers and have my car’s windows hammered on by a long parade of peddlers or beggars.  Once in a while, the boredom of sitting through hellish traffic would be interrupted by some random criminal act — someone’s bag getting snatched, someone getting held up, or some wayward bus causing an accident.

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manila bay boardwalkThere was a time when things changed a bit along Roxas Boulevard and that was the time when former Manila mayor Lito Atienza converted a stretch of the boardwalk into a restaurant row of sorts — Manny Pacquiao even had a restaurant there.   Perhaps it was an off shoot of the revival of Remedious in Malate as a nightspot of sorts, but certainly, it made the hellish drive along the Boulevard an even more special hell.  Because, on top of having to practically do the cha-cha on gas, brake, and clutch pedals, you’d have to do the El Bimbo on the steering wheel as you try not to bump careening drunks who cross the boulevard at random tangents.

Recalling other things done during Lito Atienza’s time as Manila Mayor, I did like the fact that he undertook the re-paving of so many kilometers of sidewalks and that attempt to make a part of Rizal Avenue nearest Quiapo Church into a fully pedestrian zone.  But as far as some or all of the parks and would be tourist attractions in Manila, things stayed pretty much in a decrepit state.

I actually have an impression that Manila Zoo, Rizal Coliseum, and Paco Park as well as all the other places that my mom used to take me to when I was a kid suffered a lot of neglect.

The Children’s park beside the Department of Tourism building, for example, was pretty much an assortment of concrete pissing cages masquerading as dinosaurs.  It was only recently, during the Second Aquino administration, that the park was actually given some attention and revived along with Rizal Park.

I don’t know if China Town in Binondo, Escolta, and some parts of Malate beyond the Red Light district got any attention, but my impression is that it didn’t.

jai alai buildingLito Atienza should be the last person to talk about preserving the historicity of Manila and be vocal against the Manila Bay Reclamation Project, because Atienza destroyed the Jai Alai building on Taft Avenue  — a building designed by Hollywood architect, Welton Beckett.

Despite the passing of the Republic Act No. 10066—the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009—that protects all 50-year-old buildings and specifies that special permission be secured from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for their renovation or demolition, their destruction goes on.

The trustees of the Heritage Conservation Society have sent this open letter:

“The Heritage Conservation Society, the country’s leading conservation nongovernment organization, remembers the jai alai and the start of its demolition on July 15—12 years ago.

“Public outcry and his promise not to demolish one of the largest and finest Art Deco structures in Asia did not stop Manila Mayor Lito Atienza from ordering the demolition.

Moreover, let’s not forget what Atienza did with Mehan Garden:

…he decided to build a new campus for the Universidad de Manila, (formerly called City College of Manila) on the historical Mehan Gardens. Environmentalists and historians were opposed to the project stating that Mehan Gardens should remain as an open space, one of the few remaining open spaces in the City of Manila and for historical reasons, with the gardens an untapped archaeological resource that dates back to the time of the Spanish colonial era.

17 Replies to “Former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza’s Wobbly Stand Against the Manila Bay Reclamation Project”

  1. Hi again Paul.

    The preservation of historical architecture in the Philippines leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily the Manila Metropolitan Theater survived the ax and received an extensive renovation. Too bad the Rizal Theater in Makati had to make way for the Makati Shangri-la Hotel. I had hoped a lot of other historical buildings in Metro Manila could be saved.

    In America, they take architectural preservation seriously. There was a Greyhound Bus Terminal at 1100 New York Avenue in Washington DC (built in 1940; designed by William S Arrasmith). It’s an excellent example of Art Deco design. Today the block on which it stands is occupied by a postmodern 12 floor office building. The former Greyhound station itself was extensively renovated and now serves as the new building’s lobby. It’s a magnificent blend of old and new.

    In Europe, American architect I.M. Pei’s renovation of the Musée du Louvre is another stunning example of how good design pays tribute to the past while allowing the architecture to grow for the future.

    I had hoped that Henry Sy would do something similar with the old Benguet Mining Corporation building that he had taken over as the corporate headquarters for BDO. Sadly, SM is more concerned with putting their imprint on the landscape than preservation.

    1. It is really sad that politicians continue to deface and destroy landmarks that define our identity. A few years back I made a sentimental trip to the place where I spent my entire teenage years and early adulthood. I was lost instead. The streets I knew have different names. They not only destroyed but erased parts of our history and culture.

    2. I don’t think my point came across well enough, so I think I ought to try again:

      Manila Bay is a polluted cesspool and the real answer to saving the bay is not to go against reclamation but to pressure government into enforcing stricter anti-water pollution controls.

      All the restaurants and all the buildings along Roxas Boulevard, for example, should recycle its water as well as process its waste water.

      If Carlos Celdran or Jim Libiran ever walked along Ermita or Remedios, I doubt they’d miss the stench of rancid grease in the sewers.

      I bet even the Syquia Apartments flushes all its shit and waste water almost directly into Manila Bay.

      Moreover, dapat i-kampanya din nilang tanggalin na ang seaport sa Manila, these ports cause a lot more pollution and kill the Bay everyday.

      1. Sorry for digressing, Paul.

        I did get the subject of your article. I got too focused on the fact that the Manila city government’s (and by extension, the national government) efforts at urban renewal have been appalling and misguided.

        With regards to privately owned buildings and businesses treating their own waste, the DENR, over the past five years or so, has sent out notices that buildings — commercial and residential — need to install waste water treatment facilities. This is now a requirement for new properties being developed as well as older structures which were built under the guidelines of the old building code (which did not require it) for the issuance of their environmental safety certification.

        However, I don’t think moving the port to another location is the best solution to alleviating the pollution in that part of the bay. This will likely just spread pollution over a greater area.

        Consider San Francisco and Tokyo. Both are port cities and yet they are able to maintain a balance between the business conducted at their port facilities and environmental safety. The key to their success is that each of these cities has a very efficient waste water and sewage treatment plant to handle the cities’ refuse. In San Francisco, the water treatment method used is so effective, the output is safe for human consumption. Its facilities are right on the water’s edge and empties right into the bay.

        If we want to revive Manila Bay, a (system of) waste water and sewage treatment plant(s)is essential. When Manila Water became concessionaire to the MWSS for Metro Manila’s eastern zone in 1997, less than seven percent of the concession area was connected to a sewerage system. That means the majority of the raw sewage produced emptied directly into Metro Manila’s waterways or was accumulated in septic tanks (which eventually drained into the groundwater). In 2010, the company was supposed to have provided sewerage system coverage for up to 30 percent of its concession area. By 2018, Manila Water projects 100 percent coverage. The main problem MWSS concessionaires face is the space restriction in Metro Manila. Poor city planning and the chaotic urban sprawl make the capital investments to develop a centralized sewer network in the NCR highly exorbitant and this has made the creation of a single system near impossible. The national government has instead shifted to the construction of more smaller sewage treatment plants (STPs) and now requires private properties to have similar provisions. The “package” STPs implemented for private properties are similar to the old septic tanks that have been around forever. They consist of several compartments, each one containing microorganisms that successively break down organic waste. The end result is clear, potable water fit for drinking.

        Not everybody agrees. A lot of people have complained about the new requirement by the DENR, largely due to the cost. Especially owners of buildings older than a decade. Retrofitting an old building with an STP can run anywhere between two to five million pesos. But considering the alternative is for Metro Manila to end up drowning in fecal matter, the investment is worth it.

        1. Well, we differ in terms of what to do with Manila’s harbors and this may be born from having had ridden boats at the Manila Pier during my stint with RTVM (Radio TV Malacanang) in the mid-90’s.

          There were a number of times when RTVM’s broadcast crew had to board BRP Ang Pangulo at the pier. This was something I really, really dreaded.

          First thing is that to get to the pier where Ang Pangulo was, we usually had to go through non-stop heavy traffic from Intramuros all the way to the actual pier — which was less than 2 or 3 kilometers.

          Then we’d have to haul our equipment for quite a stretch, not trusting the stevedors or port workers to carry our stuff.

          As we pushed out from Manila Bay, we all got the full onslaught of the water pollution reeking from its waters.

          The experience of it sort of made me wonder at times, how it would be like to be a country lass or lad forced to find work in Manila.

          I imagine I’d probably ride a boat from a pier somewhere in Visayas or Mindanao, where the waters would be relatively dirty but still bearable.

          Then, somehow, manage to keep sane while bearing the boat’s cramped spaces for two days.

          Then finally, waking up in the wee hours of morning to the smell of Manila Bay.

          Coming from Zamboanga on one trip and returning via boat on Manila Bay, I was actually roused from my sleep by the smell of the bay.

          Man, I swear, it was smelled like the inside of a poso negro of a public market.


          I admire your faith in water treatment and perhaps other piers in other part of the world, are as you claim, have managed to maintain a good balance.

          You remind me of Eros Kaw, a guy whose company makes good business around the world with a patented water treatment technology which basically involved oxidizing then trapping the sulfur, ammonia and other nasty stuff in waste water.

          I wasn’t able to see his technology being implemented, but he swears by it and with as many clients as he claims to have, I have a feeling that it may be true.

          In anycase, I did get to pass through a number of piers in Hongkong from Wanchai to wherever it was that I ate a lot of seafood. It was amazingly clean, it was like riding the purple line of the LRT when it was spanking new.

          If the situation in Manila’s piers could one day approximate that, then, I guess I’d be sold.

          However, as it is now, I’m staunchly for the removal of the pier — or at least a substantial reduction of the cargo shipments that pass through that place.

          Back in the Senate, I once heard Gordon explain why it would be a good idea and why it wasn’t being done.

          It all boils down to Enrique Razon and his port operations.

          It’s big business and I think the guy has major clout with all the newspapers as well as TV stations.

          So, no one but no one has any incentive to raise the idea of moving the port at all and putting him out of business.

          With all the money that is going through Manila’s ports for decades, why hasn’t the “water treatment” project been implemented?

          That’s a big question, come to think of it.

        2. Nope, it ain’t faith if you’ve actually seen the technology work. At least on a small scale.

          Okay, time for a shameless plug 😉

          The San Juan City apartment building I live in is around twenty years old. Five years ago the DENR sent a letter to the building administrator outlining the requirements for an updated environmental clearance. This was when we first learned of the mandate to install an STP for older structures.

          After the initial grumbling and much hemming and hawing, our homeowners’ association decided to hire an environmental engineering services company to install the water treatment facility. We eventually chose Technotest Incorporated. They reconfigured our building’s existing septic tanks, built a new “utility room” over it and installed the sewage treatment equipment, integrated with the new septic tank compartments. The project was completed last year. Now, dark brown sludge goes in, clear, potable water comes out. You could drink this stuff. The full working system still requires some work by the residents, though. We have to ensure, for example, that only waste water and human waste gets into the building waste pipes; no inorganic waste like plastic; not even chicken or fish bones.

          Technotest was also the principal STP provider for several notable properties. Among them are Xavier School’s football field renovation, Amanpulo Resort, San Miguel Properties and the EDSA Central Complex.

          As to why a centralized sewage treatment facility hasn’t been implemented the approach that the national government has taken in conjunction with its concessionaires is different from what cities abroad have done.

          Manila Water, for example, took over the sewage and septage treatment facilities that the MWSS operated. Currently, they maintain 34 sewage treatment plants and declared that they have laid some 200 kilometers of sewage lines. They also operate a water recycling project at the UP TechnoHub in Diliman.

          The emphasis is on shifting the responsibility for waste water and sewage treatment to the private sector. This means that if you are a residential subdivision or condominium developer you will need to install an STP for the new development. Existing properties — especially those that have a high volume of users — will need to retrofit their structures to install an STP. Technically, the efforts to clean up our waterways ARE inching along.

          (The port is another animal. I got no answer for that.)

          The Cheonggyecheon waterway in South Korea is my benchmark for what we can achieve in terms of restoring our waterways. After the Korean war, people migrating into Seoul settled down on its banks in makeshift houses. Waste and trash emptied directly into the stream turning it into a toxic soup similar to the Pasig. Deteriorating conditions got so bad, Seoul covered it over with an elevated highway for 20 years.

          In 2003, Seoul’s then mayor, Lee Myung-bak initiated a project to remove the elevated highway and restore the stream. The Cheonggyecheon restoration project was designed to preserve the unique identity of the natural environment and the historic resources in the business district of Seoul, and to reinforce the surrounding business area with information technology, international affairs and digital industries. The plan also encouraged the return of the pedestrian-friendly road network.

          In 2005, the newly opened stream and recreation space was hailed as a major success in urban renewal and beautification. Probably the most significant achievement of the project was the reintroduction of clean water and natural habitats. Species of fish, birds, and insects have increased as a result of the stream excavation. As part of Seoul’s modernization, the project even resulted in a speeding-up of traffic around the city when the old motorway atop the stream was removed.

          This is where we should set our goals for Metro Manila and Manila Bay.

  2. I don’t really get the issue with Mehan garden. Perhaps it’s because I am unaware of the history behind it. However, since the space was used to house a new school which now provides for hundreds if not thousands of students, then I would say that it was a worth while sacrifice.

    1. No, it isn’t worth the sacrifice.

      Mehan Garden was established in 1858 by the Spanish as a botanical garden (It was called Jardín Botánico — literally “botanical garden”). This was a trend among European colonial powers in the 19th century. Mehan Garden was one among several botanical gardens planted throughout Spain and its colonies; it was the first zoological and botanical garden in Asia.

      The Americans decided the Spanish Jardín Botánico would be better suited as a public park. In 1913 they renamed the park after John C. Mehan, superintendent of Manila’s parks at the time.

      As this article relates, apart from the archaeological value — it IS an artifact from the 19th century — it provided a welcome break in a city that has been criticized for being overcrowded and teeming with ugliness.

      Today, Mehan Garden has the Universidad de Manila campus to the south and a parking garage on its northern end. On the remaining grounds, the squatters have taken up residence with their detritus. Pretty soon they will overrun the place.

      Unlike in America, Europe or even our among our neighbors here in Asia, where historical architectural treasures are being preserved, the Philippines’ cultural heritage is being eroded on a wide scale. That is the real cost of Manila’s chaotic, unrestrained, uneducated approach to cramming unnecessary structures wherever their whim takes them.

  3. There is a line to consider when you opt to preserve against develop/redevelop.

    I am not completely against preservation but there are limits. For one, it is funding to maintain the said building to a certain “restored state”. I don’t know about you guys but Vigan really does not appeal to me as I feel it has been bastardized even with funding for a so-called Unesco Heritage Site. Granted in the past it may have been such but now, the buildings really look delapidated instead of maintained and they are erecting new structures with just trying to “simulate” the design of yesteryears. I don’t think that was even the proper way to have gone about it.

    And also, as noted by one poster. The expension of the school on an open space is a balancing act. On the one hand you retain an open space for the public. While on the other, you give additional facilities for students and future professionals to expand their horizons. Which is of more value to you? I also go for the school expansion in this case but for other side reasons as well.

    Parks/open spaces owned by the government are never well maintained (up to the present moment) and are left to rot/disintegrate as well as become a haven for small crime. If the situation was different, maybe the open space would have carried more weight in the discussion in my head but as it stands no.

    Would I develop Rizal Park? Well no. That is a real landmark for the country, but there are places which I would consider s “secondary” or even “tertiary” when it comes to landmarks. There should be a way to determine that right?

    Just my two cents.

    1. 17Sphynx17,

      Like wantonman, you really should look at the history of the place to realize and appreciate its value — historically, architecturally and culturally.

      What makes Rizal Park any more worthy of preservation than Mehan Garden? Luneta was originally a marshland adjacent to Intramuros that the Spanish turned into a plaza (Plaza dela Luneta). That turned it into the social center for the people of Manila in the 19th century to “be seen.” And it became notorious for the executions of Filipino priests Mariano Gómez, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora and Jose Rizal for subversion.

      Mehan Garden (Jardín Botánico) was from the outset, devoted to the study of Philippine flora. Its best known director, Sebastián Vidal (1878-1889) was the foremost authority of his generation. He collaborated regularly with his European colleagues to document and preserve samples of local plant life. Archaeological digs early this century unearthed enough artifacts to support the designation of the park as an archaeological preserve. From an educational standpoint, does this not have value “for students and future professionals to expand their horizons?” All over the world, educational institutions are stressing the need for students to immerse themselves in environments (not classrooms) that offer practical experience in their fields of study. With the renewal of Mehan Garden the Philippines could have created a working medium for biologists, archaeologists, landscape architects, historians, artists, and a host of other disciplines. Instead, we got a multilevel parking structure. And more land for squatters — AHEM, informal settlers — and the inevitable crime that they bring.

      Now, which site would you rather preserve as a “real landmark for the country?” The plaza whose claim to fame is a series of executions or a what could be a living, working classroom for multiple scientific disciplines?

      Also consider this — the area was already clogged when the first discussions took place to put up the university building and the parking garage. There were alternative sites. Closest was the site of the old Ateneo Municipal de Manila in Intramuros. A number of other schools — Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Lyceum, Mapua — already have campuses within the old city. And there were other wastelands and idle lots in Manila that could have been developed. So –WHY HERE? To bring in more squatters? And petty crime?

      You are correct in that the national government has failed miserably in its responsibility to preserve our cultural heritage. Using cement hollow blocks to replace cobblestones in Intramuros and Vigan is criminal. In other countries, restoration experts meticulously replicate old techniques and use era-specific materials to achieve their preservation. And the nine-story hotel erected at the entrance to Intramuros is just ridiculously out of place.

      Our neighbors like Singapore and South Korea have legislation governing urban development and the conservation of historic urban monuments. Unfortunately, Filipinos would rather sell off our cultural, historical and architectural heritage for quick payoffs.

      1. Hi Johnny,

        I’m not saying not to preserve artifacts but I would be selective in its application as it would be the government who will maintain it will public funds. (please of course disregard whether or not there is corruption of the funds as that is another issue which affects a broader spectrum of actitivities other than just preservation/conservation/restoration)

        If we focus solely on maintaining “all” what we believed should be maintained and restored what then is left out from other projects. We are talking about limited budgets wherein spreading it too thinly overall concerns would not be an effective means of execution for their intended purpose. They would surely be half-assed and poorly implemented. Better to streamline and focus on what can be done I say.

        I also believe in using the proper materials. methodology and workmanship to keep in line with the timeperiod of the said area being preserved. So in that part we agree. But you must also understand that it is by no means a cheap/small feat to do it.

        I guess the best “example” I could think of is the show “Kings of Restoration” on the History Channel. We have basically moved away from handcrafted artisans works and more streamlined manufacturing towards mass production. As such artisans are quite rare and the more expensive option in whatever endeavor that would choose between the classical style or the modern simulated approach.

        I don’t really favor the modern simulated approach but we all know government chooses the “cheaper” and “quicker” option that is only a stop gap band-aid solution.

        So the department/group/organization tasked by our laws to preserve this should be the ones in charge of allocating budget as they should know better from here on out. But if the same group opts to bastardize the execution of the preservation/restoration then all would be for naught.

        I really don’t want to see a repeat of Vigan because who are we kidding when we do it like that? I’m still on the fence on Intramuros though as I haven’t been there for quite a while now.

        But again, since this concerns national/local budgets, then have an appropriation (annually) for it and do it properly I say. If the budget only allows for limited preservation to ensure it is done properly, I would rather that be done.


  4. I have not gone home for many years now. All I know was: Manila was congested with jeepneys and buses. Boys and girls carrying babies; are on the streets begging. Hungry boys and girls, come to take what was left on your plate; when eating in a restaurant. Chinatown was full of pimps; asking if you want a woman for sex. Those were the days…

      1. You have to look the part 😉

        I and a Chinese-Filipino friend of mine were walking around Malate after exams (way back when) with our study group when this skinny guy crosses our path and offers my friend an under-aged girl for the evening. Apparently, he mistook us for tourists from Hong Kong.

        Our female classmate wasn’t as amused. Same night, same neighborhood, this huge barrel-chested American “gentleman” wearing a tank top, shorts, lots of skin art and a Billy Gibbons-style goatee sidled up next to her asking “How much, little girl?” As she is barely five feet tall and looks twelve, you can imagine the incident made her yelp and sent her running off to lock herself in the car.

        1. Hyden,

          I practically grew up in that area, man. Can you remember exactly where this happened, like the street name?

          Then again, I suppose it may be true because I know of a couple of establishments in the area that cater to people who want to imbibe some carnal knowledge.

          Actually, one of them was a Barber Shop with a backroom for “massages”.

          But seriously, I never really encountered such a scene where some street pimp offered girls or maybe I was just too engrossed other stuff like those Chinese groceries and restaurants.


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