W Hotel under construction
In these tough economic times, one can’t help look at Barcelona’s newest hotels piercing the city skyline and wonder: what were they thinking? To be fair, the latest landmark projects such as the ME Barcelona, W Barcelona, the Barceló Raval and Sunborn BCN were conceived long before we had any inkling of a recession, but does the city really need any more expensive hotels, and what does it mean for the neighbourhoods they inhabit?
ME Barcelona began as a project by the Habitat Group who specialise in urban boutique hotels, but a dwindling economy meant they had to sell up before they were finished. In the meantime, the Mallorcan-owned Sol Meliá Group had set about establishing a new portfolio of hotels described as ‘the next level in luxe’. Their umbrella title, ME, refers to the idea that this new line of large-scale boutiques is all about, well, you. They stepped in and bought the property, which opened in August 2008.
At the press conference that ensued, the architect Dominique Perrault threw some light on the thinking behind the project. Long-time residents may remember the mysterious words ‘District 22@’ (22barcelona.com) being bandied around in 2001 to describe the ‘new technologies’ neighbourhood projected for Poble Nou, along the lines of London’s Docklands. At the time, five new buildings were conceived and laid out by Perrault with the idea that they would act as a ‘gateway’ to the new district.
Seven years on, the skyscraper count has dwindled to three, ME being the first. However, that the neighbourhood has changed can be in no doubt, and arguably for the better. Clearly modelled on Manhattan, the lower end of the Diagonal (from Glòries to the Fòrum) has become our very own avenue of office blocks, skyscrapers and shopping centres. It doesn’t have the buzz of the Big Apple, but it has become a major player as a business destination: 1,063 companies have moved in, and there are currently nearly 32,000 new workers in the area. The Ajuntament predicts that number will rise to 150,000 new jobs once the project is complete.
It is much harder to place the leisure traveller in this. At the end of Diagonal is the long anticipated five-star floating hotel in the shape of an old cruise ship, provisionally named Sunborn BCN. Owned by a Finnish developer, built in Malaysia, and finally opening in Sant Adrià in the spring of 2009 it will no doubt become a hot destination, at least in the short term, bringing with it the economic muscle of five-star tourists. The €120-million investment will provide 200 jobs. With the Fòrum nearby, which is already established as a centre for music festivals, and the beach at Mar Bella one of the trendiest in the city, it is hoped that this sensation of affluence will have a domino effect by inspiring hope at a time when the world economy is crumbling.
Currently, the area remains devoid of the things that make a barri a neighbourhood: bars and restaurants filled with regulars or somewhere to buy a loaf of bread, but 4,000 subsidised residences are in place. And, there are nearly 115,000 square metres of green space, which could well make district 22@ a blueprint for cities of the future. If office blocks usually fail to make the news, media-grabbing projects like Sunborn BCN and the ultra-hip ME could be the assets that put 22@ on the map.
Then there’s W Barcelona Hotel, popularly known as ‘la vela’ (‘the sail’), an American-owned Starwood property on Barcelona’s waterfront, designed by architect Ricardo Bofill. Many Barceloneta residents dislike it, and decry the exemption it was granted from the Ley de la Costa (Coastal Law), which generally protects coastline from such development. It spoils the view, residents say, and it’s hard to see how it will benefit them. Prices in the neighbourhood have already skyrocketed, with residents finding the rents on their 35-square-metre homes doubled when the contracts are renewed. Whether this has to do with the hotel, the recession or simply that the barri occupies several kilometres of prime beach real estate is not certain.
“I’ve heard there are plans to get rid of the long-established nudist beach to extend the paseo and protect the sensibilities of five-star tourists,” said David Hilton, a bar owner in the city. “But it’s a better situation than, say, Montego Bay, Jamaica where many high-end, foreign-owned hotels don’t bring anything to the community. Locals can’t use these places and everything is imported. This area could do with regeneration, but this is really the further development of Barcelona as a Disneyland city.”
Still, more than 14 percent of Barcelona’s annual revenue comes from tourism, according to Ajuntament figures. It’s a hip, happening city that has shown no real signs of slowing down since the 1992 Olympics, and development is a part of that. It makes cities dynamic and exciting, especially when the projects are quality ones.
Carlos Fernández, a Barcelona businessman, raises a valid point. “Usually when you hear about the problems of tourism it’s the lower end of the market,” he said. “Luxury tourism is generally not so problematic as it brings in more affluent, better-educated tourists. However, I can see that some communities would prefer that money was invested in public services.”
In many ways it is a double-edged sword. The regeneration of the Raval began nearly a decade ago when houses were pulled down in the middle of it to make way for the other Rambla. Today, it looks spic-and-span, but there’s still a real sense of community here. The neighbourhood is more cool than downtrodden and culturally it is still very mixed. Ethnic groups are also business owners, be it a kebab emporium, bar or handy corner shop for basic sundries, which for now co-exist reasonably well alongside the up-market hotels.
The cylindrical, purple, glowing Barceló Raval was initially greeted skeptically. Among the skeptics was Bokhari, who owns a local kebab shop. “A big hotel only brings in rich people. I want normal people to buy my products. Before business was good, but now it’s bad.”
Increasing the gulf between rich and poor is a concern with this kind of development. “Psychologically, a luxury hotel can be damaging for a neighbourhood,” said Sally Davies, editor of the Time Out Guide to Barcelona. “The people who are living 10 to a room can see millions of euros have been ploughed into a project for the rich, when they still haven’t got hot water. It accentuates the divide between rich and poor.”
However, the Barceló’s developers have pledged to include the community. All concerned agree that the developers must now show they are not just throwing up another new and expensive hotel, but rather looking at the bigger picture and considering how to live within the community of people who have to live with it.
As Mohinder Singh, the owner of the Maharaja restaurant across the road said: “I’m the vice president of the Associació Comercial del Raval [set up three years ago], and our aim is to improve the neighbourhood. Not just for businesses like mine, but for everyone. The manager at the Barceló is not just another businessman in a suit, he wants to be involved. We work together and we support each other. And everyone is happy.”