Rafel Royes Lopez
Retooling the city
Manuel Royes i Vila president of the Consorci
Barcelona is tricky to pin down. Relentless self-promotion has won the city an international reputation as a light-hearted capital of design and quality shopping. The place is a tourist mecca, a beacon of Mediterranean frivolity. ‘All sailor and no ship’, some might say, in reference to the city’s apparent lack of economic backbone. But wait a minute: the Catalan capital is also currently ranked by the European Cities Monitor among Europe’s top five business cities, beating out the likes of Madrid, Amsterdam and Berlin.
Time was, of course, when Barcelona’s status as an industrial powerhouse was unquestioned. Before the Spanish Civil War, Poblenou was home to various automobile factories and was known as the ‘Detroit of the Mediterranean’. The city was famous for its Anarchist and Socialist trade unions, which waged relentless battles to improve working conditions. The factories also left the pollution of a century of heavy industrialisation and it’s still with us, in the massive ‘black zone’ of toxic metals now lying in the sea-floor mud at the mouth of the Besòs River. Indeed, before the city’s major facelift in the early Nineties, Barcelona was generally avoided by tourists, who viewed the city as a gritty and grey Turin, a place to work, but not to play.
Now, however, with tourists spending upwards of €9 million a day in Barcelona, according to the Barcelona Tourism Office, the question might well be asked whether the city produces anything other than designer doodads, hotel rooms, docking space for cruise ships and nouvelle cuisine by the bucketload. Apart from tourist euros, what exactly is the meat and bones of the city’s top-ranked economy? And, should the fickle finger of tourist favour point in some other direction, how will that economy fare?
One of the answers to these questions lies in a discreet but immensely effective semi-public body, the Consorci de la Zona Franca. Formed in 1926, the Consorci, as its full name implies, originally limited its role to managing the Zona Franca, a duty-free area by the port that grew over time to become a 600-hectare industrial zone stretching along the Delta de Llobregat between the port and the airport. Shielded from general view by Montjuïc, it is indeed a place of work and no play. Home to hundreds of companies, including the Nissan car factory, the Zona Franca has been Spain’s dominant industrial zone since Franco reluctantly agreed to locate the Seat car factory there in the early Fifties. (In 1993, Seat moved its factory to Martorell.)
Over the years, the Consorci has outgrown its function as rent collector to the companies installed in the Zona Franca and become one of the city’s, and Catalunya’s, most powerful economic forces. To provide a glimpse of the Consorci’s muscle, the institution has committed a staggering €723 million to different projects in Barcelona and around Catalunya for the period 2006-09. These endeavours include building a 34-storey skyscraper designed by Frank Gehry, above the new La Sagrera train hub; the construction of a new Barcelona neighbourhood of more than 2,000 flats on the grounds of the former Sant Andreu military barracks; the construction of new buildings and infrastructure in the Zona Franca, the building of a vast shopping and office complex known as the City Metropolitana in L’Hospitalet and the construction in Besòs of a state-of-the-art university research building, the ‘Spiralling Tower’, by Zada Hadid. The Consorci is also responsible for the Fira de Barcelona international trade fairs, along with a great deal of other activity.
What makes the Consorci a unique player, whether in the realm of real estate development or other areas, is its semi-public nature. Its decision-making power is divided between three groups, two from the public sector and one from the private: the Ajuntament (Barcelona’s mayor is the Consorci’s president), the Spanish state, and prominent Catalan business institutions, such as the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce. The Consorci receives no direct government funding and must generate all of its own income and financing.
The Consorci’s general director, Esteve Borell, was quoted by the journalist Enric Tintoré in a recent book on the institution, available in English as Views of the Consorci from Lunwerg Editores. He emphasised the institution’s unique characteristic of being neither public nor private.
“Management [of the Consorci] has always been halfway between government and a private company,” said Borell. “The challenge for the Consorci is to definitively function as a private company, implementing strictly business management methods, while always understanding that it is a vehicle which public institutions can use, in many cases, as a launching point for processes of urban and economic development where private initiative is not yet sufficiently involved.”
The Consorci is successful, among other reasons, because it has built on its own prestige as a promoter: buyers literally line up for its projects. Its €210-million investment in developing the City Metropolitana shopping and office complex of L’Hospitalet, for example, quickly turned a profit when the entire project was sold to three large real estate companies, ACS, Metrovacesa and Sacresa. Liquidity generated by such sales is then poured into new promotions, which in turn are sold, and so on and so on.
The Consorci’s major role in real estate activity has sparked criticism from some neighbourhood groups and housing collectives, such as the members of the Miles de Viviendas Association, who claim that the Consorci is in truth a tool for real estate speculation. For those with a good memory, its name may also bring to mind the colossal real estate swindle perpetrated in the Eighties by its then general secretary, Antonio de la Rosa. At any rate, whether in the face of criticism from neighbourhood groups or not, the Consorci began a joint venture with Caixa de Catalunya in 2006 to build 500 low-cost, ‘socially-protected’ flats, some of which will be located in the new Sant Andreu neighbourhood.
Apart from its Midas touch in real estate, however, the Consorci’s real genius may lie in its efforts to transform the city into what Enric Tintoré and others term ‘a city of knowledge’. Beginning with the construction of the Nexus I and II buildings at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, the Consorci has poured huge amounts of money into creating an infrastructure to put Barcelona firmly on the map of the emerging, so-called ‘knowledge economy’. The Nexus buildings, for example, provide ultra-modern space for university researchers and private companies in the same building, facilitating exchange between the two. One of the tenants at the Nexus buildings is the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, home to the MareNostrum supercomputer, Europe’s most powerful computer. Another tenant in the same building is the world’s largest chip manufacturer, Intel, which has established its sole research laboratory outside of the US in the Nexus II.
The model of the Nexus buildings has been followed by the Eureka building at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Hadid’s Spiraling Tower at the Besòs inter-university campus, both initiatives of the Consorci. Likewise, another major feature in the Consorci’s bid to retool the city for the 21st century is the €100-million biomedical research centre, the Parc de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona (PRBB), in Barceloneta. Inaugurated in 2006, the PRBB now houses some 80 international bio-med research teams. And nearby, in Poble Nou’s 22@ district, are the Consorci’s brand-new Taulat building for blood plasma and tissue banks and research, its Media-Tic building for information and communication technologies, and a third building dedicated to audio-visual technologies.
It’s not unimaginable, at this rate, that Barcelona can be weaned of its dependency on tourist euros.