Editorial: Mayor’s insistence on high-rise ban

CEBU City Mayor Tomas Osmeña is sticking to his guns on the idea of imposing a ban on the construction of high-rise buildings in the city, an idea that is his reaction to the fire that hit Metro Ayala Department Store recently. He is currently withholding permit applications for 31 medium and high-rise buildings until he gets the report on the incident from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) or until a public hearing he is calling can recommend a better option.

The mayor’s logic: lives of the people can’t be compromised in favor of economic growth. He also talked about him not being motivated by what is popular.

The Osmeña proposal is not unique or new. In 1899, the United States Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act that mandated that no building in that country could be taller than its Capitol, which is 289 feet high (which allowed only buildings up to 28 stories. An amendment in 1910 essentially allowed only 10 to 12 stories (or the width of the street adjacent to the building site plus 20 feet).

That was 1899 and 1910, which dates the mayor’s thinking back to more than one hundred years ago. The U.S., except Washington D.C. which refused to repeal the law, has long moved on from the Heights of Buildings Act and instead allowed the construction there of a number of skyscrapers. The Act was supposedly in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s “understated vision of urbanity,” although some say that structural safety and, yes, firefighting questions, figured in the discussion.

Which only means that Osmeña’s firefighting argument against high-rise buildings is more than a century old and is primitive when ranged against big strides in technology since then. It also typifies a kind of leadership that is based on worries instead of on well-studied and scientific policies. How far would the US have developed had the Heights of Buildings Act remained in force? That’s an interesting question we should ask as we discuss Osmeña’s proposal.

By the way, the ban on high-rise buildings needs the concurrence of the Cebu City Council. Can he get it from the city councilors?
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