Folk singer Joni Mitchell sang those lyrics way back in 1970. But, sadly, today a private university is replacing paradise with a parking lot in the hills above central Bogota.
Bogota’s Cerros Orientales, its eastern hills, are the city’s biggest, closest green space. They are often called ‘Bogota’s lungs’ thanks to the oxygen they produce, and offer a tremendous potential recreational resource for Bogotanos – particularly the poor, who can’t afford to escape to the countryside.
Nevertheless, despite municipal decrees, mayoral pronouncements and court rulings, the hills are being steadily covered with concrete.
A case in point is La Externado University’s huge project, consisting of an almost 500-car parking garage with some classrooms on top, looming above La Candelaria: Besides destroying a piece of the hills, the project contradicts Bogotá’s expressed goals of preserving public space, combating global warming and reducing private car use.
So, why did city planning officials approve this deforesting, auto-centered monstrosity, rather than requiring the university to build something sustainable, close to mass transit? We can only suspect that the influence of a powerful university played a role. Roberto Hinejoso, son of the university’s ex-president, happens to be vice president of Bogota’s City Council.
A group of residents of Bogota’s historical center, La Candelaria, have been waging a David-vs-Goliath effort to stop this behemoth – so far without success.
To us it seems as tho at every pass, in every government agency, the law gets interpreted in favor of the wealthy and powerful – often unreasonably. Our appeals to city officials have been rejected or ignored, and received the same responses again and again: that the project is located on urbanizable land, and that the university has all the licenses it needs. Nobody seems to care whether this project is actually good or bad for the city.
And the first point is debatable. Our attorneys have concluded that the building site is inside a Forestry Reserve, or at least within the reserve’s protective belt, where construction is restricted.
And, while it is true that the university possesses a construction license and other permits, we’ve found apparent irregularities in how they obtained those documents.
In Colombia, construction licenses are issued by Curadurias, strange public-private institutions with a reputation for corruption. To get its construction license, the Externado university first applied to the Curaduria Urbana 2. The Curaduria 2 apparently rejected the application – but we don’t know for sure, because the relevant documents seem to have disappeared.
However, we do know that in 2006, while the university was applying to the Curadura Urbana 2, the city’s Administrative Planning Department (DAP) concluded that the construction site could be protected land. As a result, the Curador 2 ordered the license application suspended, at least temporarily.
Having encountered obstacles in the Curaduria 2, the university switched its application to the Curaduria 3, which issued a construction license. Such ‘Curaduria shopping’ seems highly questionable, especially for a respected legal university.
We tried to challenge that construction license. But the Curaduria replied that we didn’t have a right to because we were not immediate neighbors of the project. However, the project has no immediate neighbors – except for the university itself. And, it seems to us that a project like this one, which affects traffic, open space and the right to view the hills, affects everybody and that any resident of central Bogotá should have the right to challenge it.
Construction on hillsides became a sensitive issue in Colombia after the Space apartment tower in Medellin collapsed in last year, killing 12 people. And Bogotá’s emergency preparedness office, the FOPAE, classifies La Externado’s construction site as subject to a ‘moderate risk’ for landslides. Yet the FOPAE also says that it can’t evaluate the project’s specific dangers because – incredibly – nobody has done any risk studies of this construction project.
And these buildings lacking risk studies are located on a steep hillside above Bogotá’s crowded historical center.
Not long ago, a city architect made an official inspection of the construction site and found that the building had violated its construction license by making un-permitted changes. Construction work was suspended for about a week, then renewed.
In late 2013, officials from the Veeduria Distrital, a government watchdog agency, interviewed us about the project. They completed their report at the end of 2013, but we had to fight for a half year for that report to be released to the public. Unsurprisingly, the report was critical of the project and of the practice of switching from one Curaduria to another.
Throughout this saga, the university has been closed and non-transparent, refusing even to comment to journalists. When our group of concerned neighbors requested a meeting, the university didn’t even bother to reply. Their arrogant message seems clear: A powerful, exclusive private university like the Externado can do whatever it wants, and needn’t explain itself to bothersome neighbors or nosy journalists.
The Externado is a respected private university specializing in legal education. I’m sure it teaches its students to aspire to high standards of ethics in their legal practices. It should do better than this on its own projects.
Beyond issues of this project’s legality is the question of whether deforesting the hills for auto-centered construction is good or bad for the city. We think projects like this one are bad because they eliminate green space and worsen noise, traffic congestion and pollution.
The university is supposed to replant and replace some of the hundreds of trees it cut down – but it’s supposedly doing so far away on private property, where those trees will be of little benefit to mostly poor residents of the city center. And, we’re convinced that if the university succeeds in building its huge parking garage it will be followed by more and more construction climbing up the hillsides.
Some other cities actually recognize a ‘right to enjoy a view’ of their neighboring hills. Do all Bogotanos possess such a right – or only the wealthy?
Bogota’s historical center already suffers chronic traffic jams. A huge parking lot on its edge will compound those problems. Why doesn’t Bogota actually implement its expressed policies of promoting high-density construction near mass transit and preserving green space? Central Bogotá has many empty lots and vacant buildings near transit which could be used for educational buildings. Such sites may not have the same status as building on the hillsides, but they would be much more sustainable for the city.
We’ve had little luck interesting Bogotá media in this project, even tho it involves basic issues of quality of life and urban planning for Bogotá. Perhaps that’s because of the university’s huge political influence and all the advertising it buys.
The Externado’s is far from the only construction project in the hills. Others include expensive apartments in north Bogota and classrooms built by the public Universidad Distrital above the La Macarena neighborhood, which a judge recently ordered demolished. In La Calera, Mobil Corp. is even building a gas station beside a drinking water reservoir. As an example of how environmental agencies can work in Colombia, authorities redrew the boundaries of a forestry reserve to exclude the gas station site and allow construction.
What has most frustrated us is the apparent lack of any governmental authority willing to say ‘this project is bad for the city’s quality of life.’
I have a July 2014 copy of Humanidades, the Bogota city government’s official newspaper. The paper has two stories about the importance of urban forests and public green space, including one about how the city is removing poor families from their homes on the hillsides and relocating them close to TransMilenio stations.
By doing this, the city “prevents invasion of the green belt and along the edges of rivers,” Humanidades says, adding that the relocation also fulfills a recent court ruling ordering “the protection of the Eastern Hills, confirming the objectives of the city government to prevent at all costs the urbanization of this ecological belt.”
But Mayor Gutavo Petro’s administration has just stood by while Externado University and other powerful institutions have invaded the city’s eastern hills.
Apparently, even during the administration of Petro, an ex-guerrilla who calls himself the defender of the humble, the rich and powerful receive certain privileges.