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A pact to resurrect a city



The largest urban regeneration project in Brazil will create seventeen new neighborhoods in São Paulo’s city center and transform decaying regions into residential areas by 2018.


Until the early 70s, nearly half of the city of São Paulo’s GDP came from the manufacturing sector. Large warehouses occupied districts such as Brás, Barra Funda, Mooca, and Belenzinho, and were the symbol of the city’s industrial potency. In the following decades, however, factors like population growth, production flow difficulties due to traffic congestion, and fiscal incentives in other regions have gradually forced industrial activities to areas outside of the city. The metropolis found another vocation: the services sector currently corresponds to 65% of the metropolitan GDP. Warehouses were abandoned. Mansions that represented the wealth and status of industrial barons were irregularly occupied and transformed into tenements. Previously rich areas became nuclei of urban decay. In the last three decades, the few initiatives to recover these central areas have all failed. Last week, in an attempt to revert this scenario once and for all, the state government put aside political disputes and established a partnership with the Federal government, the City Council, and the private sector in order to launch the largest urban redevelopment program in Brazil.


The Casa Paulista project aims to build 20,000 housing units within the next four years, with a total cost of R$4,6 billion. It is the first public-private partnership for housing in the country. “The goal is not only to provide housing for the lower classes, as previous programs such as BNH and Minha Casa Minha Vida intended, but also to resurrect a vital central area that has been abandoned”, affirms São Paulo State Governor, Geraldo Alckmin. The initiative includes the refurbishing of historic buildings and the substitution of old warehouses for buildings – 20% of which, at least, will be intended for retail and services, in order to increase the possibility of people working and shopping closer to home. Moreover, the project also plans for boulevards and sports facilities, interconnected by cycling lanes.


Early last year the state government launched a call for companies to propose social housing models for the central region of São Paulo. The competition was won by the Institute of Urbanism and Studies for the Metropolis (URBEM) - an organization specializing in urban regeneration. URBEM created a team of 73 people for the project, including architects, economists, sociologists, and lawyers, in order to make a comprehensive diagnosis and point to possible solutions to issues facing the city center of São Paulo. At the cost of R$ 30 million, the institute produced 12 volumes, each with 300 pages, containing a detailed analysis of the architectural, juridical and territorial issues facing the region. The project intends to build 17 new neighborhoods in the form of a circle with a radius of 600 meters, each of which with a subway or train station at its center. “We realized that there was a double failure. The market sees housing only as business opportunities and creates gated ghettoes of wealth. And the government does not establish rules of spatial occupation that reflect the city’s changes”, evaluates Philip Yang, founder of URBEM. “We showed that it is possible to generate profit with social housing, while also leaving a legacy for the city and for the life of the population”.


During the campaigns for municipal elections, Yang presented the project to candidates José Serra (PSDB) and Fernando Haddad (PT). Soon after coming out victorious, Haddad met with Yang and Alckmin to demonstrate his support of the Casa Paulista initiative. The more complex a project, the more it depends on partnerships such as these for it to be implemented. In the present case, the state government is responsible for housing, but traffic, legislation and land uses are the city council’s responsibility. Without a pact including the three levels of power – the main financier is Federal, the Caixa Econômica Federal – bureaucratic obstacles would certainly get in the way.  The idea is to have 12,000 out the 20,000 units for families earning up to 5 times the minimum wage – R$ 3,700. “This project, apart from having a social objective, is an initiative to stimulate economic development in a crucial region of the city”, evaluates Fernando de Mello Franco, the Municipal Secretary of Urban Development. The call for the contracting of construction companies interested in executing the project will be released in May. The goal is to have all the contracts signed by October of this year and have the first units delivered by January of 2015. Until 2018, all of the re-urbanization should be concluded.


Many still recall the “São Paulo Tower”, a delirious project announced by entrepreneur Mário Garneiro in 1999, which was supposed to be concluded by 2005. It was meant to be the largest building in the world and, obviously, it never got off the ground. Due to cases like these, Paulistanos are suspicious about the viability of ambitious projects. This time, however, the rationality of the project, the unique agreement between distinct levels of government and, at least for the moment, the absence of political rivalries in favor of a great idea are reasons to remain hopeful.





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