Seares: Banning tall buildings in Cebu City

THE plan is not likely to stand, not now, not for some time anyway.

Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña’s proposal was off-the-cuff, made three days (Jan. 8) after the Dec. 5 fire that destroyed the Metro Ayala building at Ayala Center Cebu in Cebu City.

What he said

What specifically did he say? The mayor was “thinking” of a ban on high-rise buildings, which he defined as more than four stories, until safety standards are strengthened. He worried that while the fire bureau ladders “can reach 18 stories, can they evacuate 13 stories of people?” No, he said.

When two days later (Jan. 10) he said he’d go ahead with the plan, despite suggestions to slow down from business owners and developers, he didn’t flesh it out: no “parameters” and no findings yet on the lessons from the 67-hour Metro Ayala fire. Apparently, it wasn’t well thought out: no panel of experts and affected “stakeholders” vetted his idea.

Failure of mayors

The rush is often the reaction of political leaders to a tragedy: say and do something that make people think they’re acting on the problem.

Past and present mayors must not have done anything substantial to make high-rise buildings safe. Since when has the thought of people trapped in those buildings horrified Tomas, the city mayor of multiple terms?

The problem has been there: as early as when the first high-rise buildings began sprouting (notably, Ludo & Luym, 16 stories, 1968; Marco Polo Plaza, 22 stories, 1979; Waterfront Cebu Hotel, 16 stories, 1998) and in the last decade when they furiously grew in number (99, capped with Horizons 101 Tower, 55 stories, 2015) and almost a hundred more to rise.

Freezing of permit

To be accurate, what Tomas said last Jan. 8 was: “On my own, I’m thinking of putting a ban on high-rise buildings until we can be reasonably assured there are safety standards.” That’s tentative, a mere thought, and doesn’t assume one-person decision-making.

Last Jan. 10, however, Tomas said he had ordered the freezing of permit papers for medium and high-rise constructions. No longer just a thought. It’s a move surely gaining traction.

Didn’t wait

Mayor Tomas could’ve waited for:

■ Hard evidence that banning the high-rise structures, instead of adopting safety standards, would be the only way to assure public safety;

■ Result of the investigation into the Metro Ayala fire that spurred him to push the ban, and inputs from firefighting experts;

■ Opinion of business owners and developers, particularly their specific recommendations on improving safety measures;

■ Findings on consequences of the ban, temporary or permanent, on Cebu’s business and economic growth.

■ Shared decision from the City Council on such a major, far-reaching policy affecting the city.

Prospects

The freeze would upset if not totally derail business prospects of more than 90 building projects already in various stages: proposed, topped off, or under construction. And it has terrified those who already bought units or otherwise invested money, construction workers who could lose jobs, and allied industries that might close shop.

Not yet an irreversible thing though. The mayor can shelve it as quickly as he brought it out.
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