Does Metro Manila need another elevated highway?

Jones Bridge and Manila Central Post Office separated by Pasig River —PHOTOS BY EDGAR ALLAN M. SEMBRANO

To build or not to build? That is the question lingering for quite some time now following announcements early this year that works for Pasig River Expressway (Parex) are set to start.

At present, there are three elevated highways in Metro Manila: Skyway (Stages 1 to 3) linking Alabang in Muntinlupa and North Luzon Expressway (NLEx); Harbor Link, which connects Manila’s Port Area to the Mindanao Avenue Interchange of NLEx; and Ninoy Aquino International Airport Expressway linking Skyway and Aseana City to the airport terminals.

The planned Parex, a 19.3-kilometer-long elevated highway, which would connect Road 10 in Tondo, Manila, to Circumferential Road 6 in Taytay, Rizal, will traverse most of the stretch of the historic and potentially archaeologically rich Pasig River, passing through the cities of Manila, Makati, Pasig and Taguig.

The project by San Miguel Corp. is seen to affect at least the visual integrity of a number of heritage sites, particularly in Manila, Makati and Pasig, apart from the environmental concerns raised by a number of groups.

In Manila, the possible heritage structures that will be affected include, among others, Intramuros, a national cultural treasure with a World Heritage Site in it, San Agustin Church, Aduana or Intendencia Building, the El Hogar building, Pacific Commercial Building, Jones Bridge, the National Press Club building by architect Angel Nakpil, the Commercial Bank building by Jose Ma. Zaragoza on Escolta, Edificio Calvo, Manila Central Post Office, Manila Metropolitan Theater, Arroceros Forest Park, Quezon Bridge, Ayala Bridge and Isla de Convalecencia, where Hospicio de San Jose is located.

Also included are sites within the histo-cultural overlay zone in Sta. Ana district, such as the Manila Boat Club building, an important cultural property (ICP), Lichauco Heritage House, Plaza Felipe Calderon, Sta. Ana Church and Pao Ong Hu Taoist Temple.

In Makati, these include the heritage houses of Barangay Poblacion, such as the Spanish-era Coronado House, the American-era Tolentino and Cu-Unjieng houses and the Makati-era old municipio; Guadalupe Bliss in Cembo, which is a presumed ICP as it was designed by National Artist Francisco Mañosa; Makati City Jail (formerly Fort McKinley Prison), which is already dwarfed by Ortigas-BGC Link Bridge in Barangay Northside; and the late 18th-century San Nicolas de Tolentino Chapel in West Rembo and the old Pasig old capitol building in Barangay Sta. Rosa.

San Nicolas de Tolentino Chapel in West Rembo, Makati


In a series of posts on his Facebook account, landscape architect and environmental planner Paulo Alcazaren lamented the Philippine government’s lack of understanding that more roads mean more traffic.

“While progressive cities around the world are tearing down elevated highways, we’re building more of them,” he said.

“We all have to remember that traffic is not the problem but a symptom of the problems of a lack of a comprehensive and inclusive transport system that focuses on moving people and not vehicles, and of the deficiencies in how we plan and build our cities, favoring sprawl-based templates abandoned by the rest of the world today,” he added.

Comparing Parex to the elevated highway running along the banks of Han River in Seoul, Alcazaren said the impact of the former, a project within the government’s “Build, Build, Build” program, is greater as the latter has many wide easement areas converted into parks and open public spaces.

“San Miguel’s motives are presented as a project for the public good. However, it seems like the benefits would accrue only to specific sectors and the price everyone pays for the project outweighs an outcome that is at best a stopgap solution to our transport woes,” he said.

Alcazaren, who received praises for his work on Iloilo City’s Esplanade and bike lanes, also raised questions on whether a visual resource assessment was undertaken for the project “to determine impacts on view corridors and effects on cultural/heritage sites, the river’s ecology, as well as riverside property values.”

“The environmental impact assessment of the project should also have been done and gone through a process of stakeholder consultation,” he said, as he could not find any.

He suggested to instead use the P81-billion budget for the project in other public-friendly undertakings, such as the construction of more mass transit, inclusive nonmotorized (pedestrian and bike) transport, more pedestrian and vehicular bridges across Pasig River, and transport ferries.

Negative impact

International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Philippines trustee Erik Akpedonu meanwhile said the construction of the elevated highway will irrevocably destroy the sightlines of heritage structures along Pasig River, as “these kinds of important vistas are increasingly being lost in Manila these days.”

“Just think of the recent disappearance of the old Paco Philippine National Railway Station behind the massive highway in front of it, where originally Paco Station was the glorious terminus of a wide avenue (Quirino Avenue) approaching it,” he said.

Akpedonu said heritage preservation is not limited to preserving structures but is also about the relationship of these structures with each other as well as the structures’ relation to the urban or natural landscape.

Furthermore, he explained that the current transportation planning in Metro Manila started in the 1940s with, for example, the highways constructed by Robert Moses in New York during that period.

This, he said, reached its peak in Europe and North America in the 1950s and 1960s with the construction of massive highways that cut through neighborhoods and city centers.

“However, beginning in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, citizens grew ever more critical of myopic urban planning that focused on the car at the expense of urban communities, pedestrians, green spaces, heritage, vistas and public mass transit systems,” he said.

He also said that this “car-centric planning” started to become unpopular in the developed areas of the world by the 1980s to the 1990s due to its negative impacts on good quality of urban life.

Mass transportation

Akpedonu said that the key for sustainable, and heritage and nature-friendly development is the redevelopment of mass transportation.

“There is widespread consensus among urban planners worldwide that the solution to traffic and urban congestion does not lie in building ever more and ever wider highways, but in the massive expansion of public mass transport systems,” he said.

This led, he said, to the closure, demolition and renaturation of these highways and elevated expressways, such as Brooklyn-Queens Expressway built in 1954, Nihonbashi Expressway in Tokyo (1964) and the renaturation of Cheonggyecheon Expressway (1968) in Seoul into a river park.

“Hence, instead of repeating the mistake done elsewhere since the 1950s and 1960s, it would be better for Manila to adopt a future-oriented, modern, efficient and sustainable traffic concept, which means an integrated public mass transport system based on LRT (Light Rail Transit)/MRT (Metro Rail Transit) and subways,” he said, as “maintaining a car-centered development model is ultimately unsustainable.”

Akpedonu also explained that the construction of a six-lane elevated highway on Pasig River would reduce it to “a mere gutter.” Pasig River is the nucleus, heart and soul of Manila, he said.

“Without the Pasig River, there would be no Manila [and its environs] today,” he added.

Both the national cultural agencies and San Miguel Corp. have yet to release statements regarding this issue.

The project, which was supposed to start in February, is scheduled to be completed in 2023. —CONTRIBUTED INQ