Groups of local residents are campaigning to stop the privatisation and commercial development of public land across Buenos Aires, saying the government’s plans do not consider the city’s true needs.
With shouts of “cara dura!” and “mentira!” reaching full volume inside of the Buenos Aires City Legislature on 26th October, you could easily have confused the public audience with a match between historic rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate.
While football was not the theme of the day, the hearing did expose another heated rivalry in the capital: city legislators vs. the residents of Caballito.
The special audience was called in response to another attempt (the fifth in ten years) by the PRO-led City Legislature to pass a rezoning initiative that would grant the IRSA Group (proprietor of 15 shopping centres in Argentina) a licence to construct in Caballito the largest shopping centre complex in Latin America. As the neighbourhood zoning regulations currently stand, only residential construction is permitted on the property in question, which measures 2.4 hectares and is located on Av. Avellaneda (between Olegario Andrade and Fragata Pte. Sarmiento).
The proposed mega-project, with an estimated capital investment of US$150m, has been a consistent, bitter, and controversial battle for Caballito resident Mario Oybin, founder of the neighbourhood group SOS Caballito. A grassroots movement in its purest form, SOS Caballito was born out of Oybin’s personal displeasure with returning home from holiday to find a ten-storey apartment building being constructed next to, and overlooking, his residence.
“I had some political experience in college, and I understood that if there was no major movement, we were not going to be able to do anything [for the neighbourhood],” says Oybin. “At one point I gathered signatures, but they ended up in the trash… so afterwards, I then decided to invite the local neighbours to start a community-level mobilisation.”
While he was too late to prevent the construction of the apartment building next-door, Oybin successfully organised a social movement to be reckoned with. Over a 12-year period, SOS Caballito has evolved from a small group of local residents banging pots and pans and picketing construction sites, to a fully developed advocacy force. The group has successfully thwarted several large-scale neighbourhood construction projects, including the city government’s four previous attempts to green-light the mega shopping centre.
“This is the fifth time now that the City has presented a request for a change in the zoning laws for the proposed shopping centre,” he laments. “There is not one basic need for the city of Buenos Aires that supports the continued insistence on a law that will only benefit a select group of businessmen.”
A Growing Trend
In what appears to be an increasingly regular theme, the neighbours of Caballito are fighting only one of the several property development battles that are raging across Buenos Aires.
From the proposed mega shopping centre in Caballito, to the sale of the public lands used by the Tiro Federal, to the Boca Juniors purchase of public property to expand stadium seating (land originally intended for social housing), the push for private investment into public lands a has become a controversial feature of Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s first year in office. Looking to make his own mark on the city after eight years as cabinet chief under former Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, Larretta has defended his urban development plan and heavy focus on public works as the principle way to “improve the quality life for all of the [city’s] residents.” Recently, Franco Moccia, Minister of Urban Development and Transportation, also commentedon the city’s large scale development, indicating his belief that “when cities grow, they must reform themselves.”
This notion of “development for the future” has resulted in multiple large scale construction projects located throughout the city, as well as newly promulgated – and controversial – legislation.
In June 2016, the Buenos Aires City Legislature, in a PRO-led initiative that received support from the opposition (Law 5558), approved the creation of a real estate agency for the City of Buenos Aires, known as the “Agencia de Bienes Sociedad del Estado”. This agency will function as a pseudo-governmental entity, engaging in the administration, taxation, and auction of public land. While it must first seek Legislative approval prior to the sale or solicitation of public land, if granted, it will have the exclusive right to manage the process absent formal oversight. A contentious piece of legislation, the law calls into question the limits with which the City Legislature can delegate its governmental powers (see Article 84 of the Buenos Aires Constitution).
As a lawyer for the Observatory for the Rights of the City, and the face of the “Buenos Aires No Se Vende” (Buenos Aires is Not For Sale) campaign, Jonatan Emanuel Baldiviezo dedicates his life to combating what he believes to be the monopolisation of city planning by private business interests.
Speaking to The Indy, he says that he is undeterred by the relatively low odds of successfully combatting the city’s privatisation. “We see the privatisation of public land as a form of exploitation. This is because, once public land is deemed privatised, those [companies] who have privatised it will have ‘usage rights’ for at least 30 years. As of right now, more than 200 hectares of public land in Buenos Aires have been privatised [since 2007], that is more than an entire neighbourhood of the city itself.”
For Baldiviezo, the issues run deeper than the age-old “public vs. private” debate, and contribute to the diverse social conflicts that have arisen within the city in recent years.
“When we discuss the sale of public lands, we are no longer arguing in the abstract, asking ‘would it be good if we sold these lands or not?’. In Buenos Aires, we have come to the point where this is now a general policy of the state,” says Baldiviezo. “This policy is now contributing to social conflicts among the city’s residents, as public land, naturally, is the most valuable resource that a city has.
“With those lands, you can not only regulate the housing market, but you can solve environmental issues… With the sale of the city’s public land, its social conflicts have begun to integrate, and now encompass different organisations, different sectors, and different classes.”
When asked for his opinion on whether or not the notion of “responsible investment” exists when it comes to the privatisation of public land, Baldiviezo was adamant that policy must be reviewed on a city-by-city basis.
“Here, in Buenos Aires, we have serious environmental issues, including the loss of green space. It is no coincidence that the majority of the public land sales are also aimed at green spaces. We also have a severe housing crisis, and public land could be used to help alleviate the need. For us, they are following a neoliberal logic. We must remember that the most important cities in the world continue to try to acquire and develop more public land, and yet, in Buenos Aires, we strip ourselves of our assets.”
The Seizure of the Tiro Federal
While the residents of Caballito continue to cling to the hope that they will eventually reign triumphant in their battle against the commercialisation of their neighbourhood, across town, many residents in Nuñez believe that they have already lost theirs.
The Tiro Federal Argentino is a historic sporting institution and shooting range that is located in Nuñez. It was founded in 1891, and in 2005 was declared a national historic monument. “We are a 15 hectare club with nearly 4,000 members and more than 45 disciplines of sport, of which 16 are Olympic sports,” says life long associate, board member, and anti-legislation activist Claudia Burgos.
With the sanctioning of Ley 5558, the city also approved the seizure of the lands used by the Tiro Federal. “Since last year, this government has had the intention to directly expropriate the Tiro Federal for the sole purpose of advancing their own real estate project. They want their new agency to manage all of their properties, both public and private land, and it starts right with the land of the Tiro Federal.”
In defence of the controversial legislation, the city has argued that the real estate agency and land seizure will function as a key growth stimulant for not only modernisation, but for the city’s creative industries as well. The government says it plans to construct an “Innovation Park” on 13 of the Tiro Federal’s 15 hectares. The city claims that 60% of the park will be apportioned as a “public area”, and will include both university buildings and business laboratories for research and development.
Moreover, 20% of the total proceeds from the private sale of the land will be allocated towards the urbanisation of Villa 31 and 31a, another government pledge. While it is the social end that city authorities say further justifies the sale, Baldiviezo refers to the tactic as “the use of good policy to legitimise bad policy.”
While the city’s plan to turn the private club consisting of around 4,000 members into a partially public space may sound appealing, Burgos is also quick to point out that the government’s use of the terms “park” and “public” can be misleading.
“While the city is prohibited from touching our actual building [due to it being designated a Historical Monument], there unfortunately there is nothing we can do about our land. They are going to construct towers, but who is going to live there? They are going to construct offices, but who is going to work there? They are going to construct university buildings, but they will not even be a part of the University of Buenos Aires! Nothing of what they say they are going to do will be ‘public’.”
The “Green-Space” Debate
Another pressing issue, and one that has been raised by both concerned citizens and legislators alike, is the clear contradiction between the pending privatisation of the Tiro Federal, the proposed shopping centre of Caballito, and the so-called “green plan” (Plan Verde 2016-2019) that was proposed by Larreta in October.
According to the plan, the goal is to add 110 hectares of public green-spaces by 2019, with an overall public green-space increase of 6.6%. This increase aims to raise the Buenos Aires’ dreary “green-space per resident” rate from 6.0 to 6.4 metres squared. This is far below the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of at least 9 to 11 metres squared per resident.
Some see a clear inconsistency between this plan and what could actually be realised given the public land that is available, with Baldiviezo saying it amounts to a “deceptive fraud”.
Again, there are questions over what the city government’s real priorities are. In yet another recent conflict, residents in the neighbourhood of Colegiales are protestingwhat they say is the illegal construction of a commercial centre with a ‘green roof’ on land that was designated to be a public square and park. Stéfano Cozza Di Carlo, a local and representative for the Commune, filed an injunction to halt the project. “We want a public square, not a terrace,” she told La Nación. “The green space has to be at ground level.”
For Tiro Federal activist Burgos, this kind of project is a red flag that calls for caution when evaluating what many assume to be the city’s benevolent concern for public green-space.
“This city can no longer support covered land, and this is something that the government has failed to mention. Every time there is urban development, the naturally absorbent land of the city becomes smaller and smaller. We have 15 hectares of naturally absorbent land in the Tiro Federal that will soon be developed. This means a city with fewer green spaces, less circulation, and with a lot more residents.”
According to Burgos, the government’s official response to inquires regarding the potential environmental consequences of the planned privatisation left much to be desired: “Regarding all of this, they said that they ‘will be sure to study the topic’… which essentially means they said nothing.”
In the decade-long dispute over the Caballito shopping centre, four alternative bills have recently been introduced for the creation of a public park, including one that is exclusively led by local residents.
While SOS Caballito members allocated a large portion of their public audience microphone time to arguing the merits of public green-spaces, the city government, along with a minority of local residents, argued that the commercial development of Caballito is necessary to improve neighbourhood security, develop land for public use, and draw in much needed capital investment.
This is a line of reasoning to which Oybin does not take kindly.
“They claim all of this to be progress, that any idea of progress has to be the development of productive forces. But what is the price?” he lamented, “to me this is not progress, and for all those who think that history has a value in the development of human beings, all of this is very important.”
SOS Caballito, releasing a statement coinciding with the public hearing, pointed to the aforementioned justifications as nothing more than superficial pretexts to state action:
“The installation of a large commercial centre is attractively presented as a complete package of commercial activity, including security and street illumination. This tries to cover-up other issues, such as the degradation of the natural environment, the abuse of the existing infrastructure, the exponential increase of traffic… and the loss of competitiveness within the local retail economy.”
With 28 legislative votes (of a required 31) already firmly in favour of promulgating the controversial Caballito rezoning law, Oybin and SOS Caballito hope to continue to raise enough awareness (and make enough noise) to keep their cause relevant to both citizens and lawmakers alike. The goal moving forward is to collaborate with legislators, and to combine efforts in order to create a comprehensive city park proposal.
After yet another strong display of communal grit and determination at the recent public hearing, Oybin believes that the time to act is now. “If we do not take action, they [PRO Legislators] will wait for better times. If we do not push for a single project to develop a park, they will leave the resolution in a drawer, and wait for the next political moment that happens to be good for business…”