Progress at what price?
Plans to revamp Barceloneta are encountering plenty of neighbourhood opposition
Change is no stranger to beachside Barceloneta, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and everyone’s favourite Sunday destination. Signs of contrast are everywhere in this robust, maritime barri. In the spanking new ‘showcase’ market (of dubious architectonic merit, according to some neighbours), working-class families de toda la vida queue up with well-dressed European holidaymakers and yacht-dwellers from the nearby marina. The headquarters of the local cofradía (fisherman’s guild) has recently been sold off and converted into a trendy hotel. Housing here, pushed by a demand from second-home owners, is now one of the most expensive per square metre in the city. Not too surprising considering that Barceloneta is the only city-centre neighbourhood in a major European metropolis that sports a beach, with a strong, rich-in-history personality and vibrant street life to boot.
Now many residents find themselves opposing the changes that the city wants to make in their neighbourhood. For all the praise and accolades that the ‘Barcelona Model’ of city planning has received over the past 15 years, there are now signs that it is starting to wear thin for residents. The enormously costly Fòrum 2004 project is still a sore spot for many social organisations, which wanted the funds directed at more community-enhancing facilities. Many Barceloneta residents fear their neighbourhood may be the next one scheduled to be remodeled for a high profit.
The huge majority of people here (some 5,000 families) live in quarts de cases, 35-square-metre dwellings that were chiselled out of the neighbourhood’s original mig de cases some 200 years ago. In January of this year, the Ajuntament announced a plan to install lifts in these. With an above-average percentage of people over 65 living in the neighbourhood (26.4 percent) this seems like an excellent idea. In fact, it was presented to the various neighbourhood associations (in the words of one representative) “like it was a no-brainer”. But as soon as the fuller details of the Plan de la Remodelación de Barceloneta (or Plan de los Ascensores as it is locally dubbed) became clearer, many locals reacted, in rowdy neighbourhood meetings, protest marches and noisy caceroladas. It has, in fact, divided this tight-knit community.
The ‘lift plan’ will work like this: residents in each finca will take a vote on whether they want to participate, according to information presently available. If a 50-percent-plus-one minimum majority is reached, they will then be relocated to provisional dwellings (currently the enormous housing development under construction next to the Estació de França is earmarked). But only 80 percent will be able to return, as the new space needed for the lift’s mechanisms will ‘eat up’ a fifth of the finca’s dwellings. Exactly who will get to return remains unclear. There are other grey areas: who will pay relocation costs? Will preference be given to homeowners over renters to return? If homeowners are relocated to new apartments will they need to pay the considerable costs of a new escritura (deed)? And how about those who are currently paying a rent that is below market value? Will their rent suddenly be hiked with the addition of a lift, or will they simply be ousted, victims of a large market demand for their tiny quarts, which are currently worth the amazingly high sum of €600-€800 a month?
Emilia Llorca, president of the neighbourhood association L’Óstia, was one of the earliest to oppose the plan when it was first put forward. She saw the potential pitfalls and began organising meetings and protest marches. “Really there is no ‘plan’, because each finca is a different story,” she told Metropolitan, pointing out that if one proprietor owns the majority of quarts in one block, then there is little doubt of the outcome of the vote. “A lot of people will vote in self-interest.”
Llorca said she recognised that many people will be happy to jump ship to a more user-friendly, modern home. But for those who are not, even moving to the other side of the Ronda Litoral may be traumatic, owing to Barceloneta’s self-contained and village-type character. “Which hospital would they go to?” she asked. “Which market? How would they easily visit their friends?”
Not every long-time resident agrees with Llorca. “Who wouldn’t want a lift?” asked Angeles Simarro, president of the FAVB (neighbourhood association) of Barceloneta. Simarro said Emilia and her followers are overreacting, although she admitted that there are still lots of details to be ironed out in the ‘plan’. These are scheduled to be resolved in the coming months, with a Plan de Seguimiento, or follow-up plan. Simarro believes that the Ajuntament will stick to their word, and try and permanently relocate as many people as possible inside the borders of the barri. “This neighbourhood has been deteriorating for years, and any plan for improvement is welcome. We have been promised that all newly constructed flats in the area will be earmarked for locals, including the site of the old Guardia Civil HQ on Passeig de Borbón.”
Simarro is referring to a pretty 220-year-old building, which was recently demolished—illegally, according to some, and work has been halted. City officials have pledged that social housing will be built on the plot. For the past three years, it was the squat of ‘Miles de Viviendas’, a group of activists who had kept the 220-year-old building in immaculate condition, offering an ‘open university’ to neighbourhood residents along with workshops in things like sewing and computer skills. For them, the Plan de Ascensores is an open invitation for speculators to get a tighter hold on Barceloneta.
“The market they have built, the new flats (also on the Passeig de Borbón) they are building, these are not suitable for a neighbourhood like Barceloneta,” insisted Josep Font, a member of L’Óstia. “Now they are full of tourists, we have new neighbours every seven days. They [property developers] want to make Barceloneta into a summer destination like Lloret or Sitges. They want to wipe us off the map.”
Both Emilia Llorca and Josep Font emphasised that they do not oppose a plan that would help elderly people in the neighbourhood, but said alternatives need to be looked at first, like turning old vacant buildings in Barceloneta into modern, lift-enhanced abodes, or reclaiming the hundred of bajos [ground floors] for mobility-challenged seniors. A spokesman for Arquitectos Sin Fronteras said his group agreed, and told Metropolitan that the ‘plan’ (which is a modification of the original master plan for the barri) “lacks something as basic as a sociological study of the neighbourhood.”
Emilio Suarez, a fair-housing activist, said that the issues in Barceloneta have much in common with many neighbourhoods across Spain where residents are treated as a commodity and local governments juggle measures to address the housing crisis whilst keeping investors interested at the same time. “The real problem is that the Barceloneta plan hasn’t been elaborated together with us and, really, we are the ones who know the problems and quirks of our own neighbourhood.”
For Emilia Llorca it all comes down to not trying to bulldoze communities along with the buildings. “Really, all we are asking for is more respect,” she said. “There is a boom. We understand this, and you can’t stop progress. But we need to think about this and talk about it. This is all we have left.”