Like most other cities that have hosted important international events over the years, Rio de Janeiro is hoping to cash in on its skyrocketing profile. The Cidade Maravilhosa has been working tirelessly to shed its party-town image and emerge on the other side of the 2016 Olympic Games as a credible cultural and business centre. Museums designed by ‘starchitects’ have been commissioned, poor neighbourhoods are being redesigned, and a multi-billion dollar commercial centre development has been announced.
Perhaps inspired by the success of London’s Canary Wharf business district, Rio policymakers have revealed plans to redevelop the currently derelict port zone into a luxury business district complete with mirrored skyscrapers and its very own Norman Foster creation.
According to Rio’s Mayor’s Office, the project consists of the “reurbanisation” of five million square metres, including the construction of four tunnels, 17km of cycle-ways, three sewage treatment facilities, and the refurbishment of 70km of sidewalks.
Works have already started in what is being dubbed the Porto Maravilha (Marvellous Port) development. The Museu do Amanhã, a cutting-edge museum designed by lauded Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has already broken ground. Another cultural space, the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), a gallery dedicated to the art and history of the city, opened its doors to the public in 2013. Public squares are being spruced up and there is a plan to plant over 15,000 new trees in the area. But the project remains years away from actual completion.
A pivotal aspect of the urban regeneration proposal was the demolition of a four-kilometre-long suspended road known as the Perimetral. Opened in the 1960s, it ran along the shore of the Guanabara bay offering drivers riding on it phenomenal views, but rendering the area underneath it a wasteland of abandoned buildings and dangerous streets. In January, the Perimetral was finally torn down, in preparation for the real work to begin.
From the ground up
To describe Rio’s port region as a pleasant place would be to stretch the truth to breaking point. It is true that the area – like much of the rest of Rio – has been blessed with natural assets and is surrounded by spectacular forested mountains in the background, and the placid bay stretching before it. But decades of neglect and mismanagement by successive administrations mean that to rehabilitate the region, it is cheaper to tear everything down and start again.
But decades of neglect and mismanagement by successive administrations mean that to rehabilitate the region, it is cheaper to tear everything down and start again
This scorched-earth policy, favoured by the current mayor Eduardo Paes, offers plenty of opportunity. The port region is adjacent to the city’s already established downtown and the business district. It is a piece of prime real estate, with sweeping views over the bay and the mountains, and it makes sense for the mayor to want to tear it to the ground and start again – preferably by flogging the land to business developers at sky-high prices. And that is where the Marvellous Port project was born.
According to the Marvellous Port website, the whole regeneration project is scheduled for completion by 2016, at which point construction will begin on the many luxurious skyscrapers. The Brazilian media has reported that over the next eight years, the region will gain close to one million square meters of real estate, worth BRL 8bn (approximately $4bn).
This is only one of the key projects planned for the area, though, and is being led by Westfield, the company behind the vast majority of developments connected to the London Olympics. Westfield is working with Related, an American real estate developer, and BNCORP, a Brazilian developer.
Locals have been trumped
The plan is to build a mega-complex that will include a luxury shopping centre, high-spec business towers, hotels and apartment blocks, collectively known as Porto Cidade (Port City).
“We were looking for an opening in Rio, and the Marvellous Port fit, as it is both an extension to the downtown area and is gaining new infrastructure,” Daniel Citron, President of Related for Brazil, told the O Globo.
“The complex will be located where all new transportation converges, including the new VLT (trams). It is a region that was previously unviable because it was not properly integrated [with the rest of the city].”
Construction is expected to begin in 2014 and will be completed in phases, finishing in 2022. Not far from Porto Cidade, Brazil will gain its very first Trump Towers complex. Consisting of five AAA skyscrapers, 150m tall and boasting 38 floors of office space each, Trump Towers Rio will occupy 450,000 square metres along the Avenida Francisco Bicalho, a traditional – and pivotal – traffic artery that connects downtown Rio to the suburbs and to Ipanema and Leblon – the luxury residential neighbourhoods.
Work on the Trump complex is not expected to begin until after the 2016 Olympics, by which time several tram lines connecting the Marvellous Port area to the rest of Rio will already be complete, making the complex’s location very desirable indeed.
“There is a tremendous need for a project of this size and calibre as Rio de Janeiro has one of the lowest office vacancy rates in the world,” Donald Trump Jr told Bloomberg Newsweek. “With extensive research conducted by our leasing agent, Cushman and Wakefield, we are pleased to confirm that Trump Towers Rio is currently the largest [planned] urban office complex in the BRIC countries.”
Far from inclusive
But all of this development comes at a cost, and not just in terms of capital investment. The port region is the rightful birthplace of the city, and has always been densely populated. Furthermore, some of the buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair through lack of investment from the city, are some of the oldest and most beautiful in all of Rio, and also of extreme historical significance.
The majority of the colonial buildings, factories and old farm mansions in the area are scheduled for demolition to make room not only for infrastructure developments but for the likes of the Trump Towers and the Porto Cidade.
One of the most oft-cited complaints is the lack of room for affordable housing to be developed in the area; current residents would be moved on and their dwellings torn down.
“The fact is that this is a central area, historically occupied by low income families,” explains Lilian Amaral de Sampaio, a local architect and urbanist. “Very little of the Porto Maravilha proposal was designated for social and lower-income housing or for residential developments in general.”
There are also questions about how the project was de facto developed, and with what interests in mind. “In London, before the re-urbanisation of the Docklands was initiated, a number of studies were carried out that sought to define the guidelines for the use of the space,” explains Roberto Anderson M Magalhães, an architect with the Rio de Janeiro State administration.
“In Rio de Janeiro, the project for the re-urbanisation of the port zone, was concerned exclusively with transport ways and constructive indices. There is not a single study that identifies the lines of dominance in the landscape of the area, nor what should be preserved.”
For Anderson, the development is a waste of the last opportunity to build a mix income neighbourhood in a city that already suffers from overcrowding. For him and many other critics the project will simply push the current, poor, inhabitants further into the suburbs, speeding up the process of gentrification in an unhealthy way.
The original plan for the urban regeneration of the region proposed a redevelopment of the region not as an extension of the nearby business district, but as a mixed model neighbourhood with commercial, corporative and residential properties as well as refurbished public infrastructure. That has since been replaced with the current model, and not everyone is pleased with that.
“This development is part of a larger trend in which cities compete with each other in global market,” hoping to attract business and tourism explains Amaral de Sampaio. New York, London and Barcelona, have all gone through similar processes with varying degrees of success.
Amaral de Sampaio is not holding her breath. “The real question that remains is whether or not Rio has the robust business health that will create the demand for all of that converted corporate space.”