Towers dwarfing traditional Buenos Aires

For the past forty years, the population of the inner city of Buenos Aires has flat-lined at three million. And yet the Argentine capital is experiencing a drastic intensification of its land use, particularly in the form of residential towers for emerging affluent sectors. The construction of luxury towers is not a new trend: they have been prevalent in wealthier parts in the north like Belgrano and Recoleta since the 1930s. However the increasing saturation of the wealthier northern neighbourhoods has seen this trend spread to middle class neighbourhoods in the centre and the west. Until recently, these neighbourhoods still had the social and cultural qualities of the early twentieth century Buenos Aires.

A recent report on Construction in Buenos Aires between 2001-2011 (CCBA, 2012) shows the disproportionate geographical concentration of residential development in more affluent areas. Out of the city’s 47 neighbourhoods, 43% of development has been concentrated in Belgrano (6.7%) and Palermo (13.6%) in the north and Caballito (10.1%), Villa Urquiza (8.1%) and Almagro (4.6%) in the west (CCBA, 2012). This development trend does not correspond to population growth or patterns of urbanisation in these areas.

For example, over the past decade the population of Palermo has grown by only 0.3% and in Recoleta there has been a negative growth of -4.6% (Census 2010). This is symptomatic of a general trend of misdirected housing distribution in the Argentine capital. Overall, there is a major housing deficit of around 140,000 homes, particularly in lower income areas. Yet there are around 341,000 empty homes in the city, mainly located in the more affluent areas of high residential growth (according to the 2010 National Census). The high supply of housing in areas where there is no great housing demand suggests many of these developments are speculative investments created to stimulate growth.

This trend has been particularly apparent since the nation’s economic crash in 2001 when construction was used as a way out of the crisis. This ‘spatial fix’ was not only a solution for the government but also for middle and upper middle income residents, who deemed property in more affluent areas as a stable investment option in times of uncertainty. Due to Argentina’s economic growth since 2002, and the increasing demand of the beneficiaries for new ways to invest their capital, housing in Buenos Aires has become an important commodity in times of growth as well as in times of crisis. In 2005 there was a surge in construction as the economy flourished and planning regulations were loosened to enable developers to build with more ease. This produced a very visible densification of many inner city boroughs, affecting the urban landscape and daily lives of many local residents. As a response in 2005, a group of local residents from Caballito started a campaign to ‘Stop the towers!’

Caballito is a traditional middle-class neighbourhood that sits at the geographical and cultural heart of the city. Caballito is a densely populated area with 176,000 inhabitants and over the past twenty years it has experienced an uncontrolled surge in private residential towers that according to one resident, Mario Z. are “appearing like mushrooms!” Undervalued plots of land, with houses of only one or two storeys are being bought from residents and redeveloped into property that exploits the land to its maximum capacity. Since 2002, much of this new housing is ‘lavish’ (CCBA, 2012), designed for the wealthier consumers who seek gated properties with 24-hour security and private amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts. A physical gesture of paranoid securitisation, these buildings turn their back on the public space of the community and the social life of the neighbourhood.

One activist Mario Oybin recounted how his detached house had a nice garden and then a large tower was built next door, blocking all the sun. But the concerns of local activists like Mario go beyond their back yards. Mario, among others, argue that market forces have become the dominant players in the planning and development of investment-worthy neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, creating places that meet the demands for capital rather than the needs of residents for a liveable city.

In 2005 Mario started getting residents to sign a petition calling for a restriction on the permissible heights of new buildings. However this method had little impact and Mario realised they would need to ‘take to the streets’ to get their voice heard.

Many residents were initially reluctant to take this approach, arguing that direct action was a method used by the populists, not the middle class. Mario commissioned a large street banner that read, “They’re changing our Neighbourhood. Let’s resist together!” Gradually community support was galvanised.

In June 2006 a street protest was held in the neighbourhood and twenty residents attended. Through personal contacts they managed to get El Clarin, one of Buenos Aires’ leading newspapers, to do a report on the protest. This coverage instantly gave their campaign much greater visibility, and a wider support network. Over time activist groups such as the Proto Comuna Caballito and SOS Caballito emerged, determined to make a strong case justifying height restrictions on buildings in the neighbourhood.

In order to put pressure on city officials to address their concerns, these activist groups made the case that the day-to-day infrastructure of the community was now being massively overstretched by unregulated levels of densification. As a result, AySA (the national water supplier) was forced to do a study on the availability of water infrastructure, such as sewers, in certain neighbourhoods undergoing densification.

The report clearly showed that future densification would in fact need to be restricted. After a long legal battle, the community won their fight and in March 2008 law 2722 was passed by the Legislature of Urban Development. This law restricted the height levels of future constructions in three zones of Caballito, covering around eighty blocks in the neighbourhood. Though the mayor Mauricio Macri vetoed the law a few months later, this decision was later overruled by the city legislature.

Although the activists managed to successfully restrict the heights of buildings in certain areas, they are still facing a long and arduous battle to ensure that law 2722 is upheld. As Mario argued, planning regulations were changed not to create a better living environment but simply to avoid middle class dissent: “the mobilised middle class scared them, they wanted to calm them down to avoid conflict”. Many planning permissions were slipped in during the window of time before the law came into force. However in the case of Astor Caballito, a gated complex with three sky-scrapers, the plans for construction were registered in June 2008, one month after the law came into force. As Mario explained, Macri’s government may have closed the front door to unregulated development, but they have left the back door ajar.

The coordinator of the neighbourhood group Proto Comuna Caballito, Gustavo Desplatz, argues that restricting building heights for new constructions has meant that developers see a lower rate of return on their investment and therefore now make bigger profits building elsewhere. According to Desplatz, the activists’ hope was to have the heights in the entire neighbourhood properly regulated so that the quality of life was maintained for the entire area. However he acknowledges that as the new zoning law only covers part of the neighbourhood, construction will intensify in the other parts of Caballito as a result.

Some local observers also argue that the Caballito activists are only thinking about their particular needs and not the wider concerns of the city as a whole. They argue that the city needs to grow in order to prosper, and that areas like Caballito are so central that it is important that their density is maintained. An outright ban on building at height in order to protect the old fabric of the area is just a conservative, NIMBY reaction to change that does not allow any room for the city to grow. However, J.M. Kanai, an academic who has written on this middle class movement in Caballito, disagrees:

“Such achievements may not account to proactive city making and they even constitute only partial localized victories…Yet it is also important to remark that UMC [Urban Middle Class] localisms are not antithetical to wider initiatives of growth with equity and regional justice” (Kanai, 2010: 1896)

For further information visit: http://protocomunacaballito.blogspot.com (In Spanish)