My response to the Mayor of Porto

I thought the – Comment – posted by the Mayor of Porto – Rui Moreira – deserved a point by point reply. I am presuming the comment was genuine and not fake. But even if it was fake, the reply will serve a useful purpose.

The Mayor’s comment was in relation to my blog on Friday (September 4, 2015) – Friday lay day – the ‘worst tour’ in the world – where I described my field trip of the city of Porto, Portugal organised by the – The Worst Tours.

I would add that my conclusions were not just drawn from the ‘Worst Tour’ but also by three days of my own reconnaissance throughout the city and delving into data and archival documents.

The Mayor said that while some of my conclusions were “true, there are others which are simply lies”, which is a strong statement to make.

Being more circumspect, he might have said that the points of dispute were disagreements over interpretation. Because a lie means that the conclusion was ‘made up’ and had no foundation in fact.

Lets see.

The Municipal Market (the Mercado do Bolhão

First, I wrote in relation to the Municipal Market (the Mercado do Bolhão):

For example, the next photo is of the historic market, which was once a beautiful structure. It is now in a state of disrepair and is being held up by scaffolding and supports. The derelict shops are increasing in the complex.

The government is squeezing the tenants of the stalls to leave because it wants to privatise the resource.

The Mayor responded to suggest I was lying with:

Take the municipal market, as an example. The merchants are not being evicted; the market is not going to be privatized; the town hall has already announced the project and the chronogram.

Note I didn’t use the word “evicted” – I said “squeezing the tenants of the stalls to leave” – which has an entirely different connotation and can include rather subtle, passive measures rather than a full-scale eviction whereby legal papers are served by the property owners on tenants who have to leave.

I didn’t imply that at all.

What is happening is this. I cannot be exact but a casual count would suggest that around 60 per cent of the available shops and stalls at the Market on both levels (it is a two-tier structure) are empty and in a state of disrepair.

The prices are low and have not been hiked to satisfy tourist demand although tourists certainly go there given it is a major building in Porto and was given the status of “monument de interesse público” (building of public interest) by official decree on February 22, 2006.

The state of disrepair goes back a long period. There is concrete cancer throughout the structure and the upper floor is being held up by scaffolding since 2005.

My information is that as a stall holder goes broke or leaves for whatever reason, the government does not allow a new stall holder to take over the space. So as time has passed, the number of active shops/stalls has dramatically decreased.

There is some critical mass necessary for a shopping place to be viable and one suspects that the Bolhao Market is approaching the unviable scale. Which is how the existing tenants are being squeezed.

It is a subtle sort of pressure. By turning the place into a wasteland with increasingly empty shops, the whole venture is threatened for all the remaining but dwindling shop keepers.

Over the last few decades, each candidate for Mayor has pledged that they will renovate the Market. There has been huge civic disquiet and protests in Porto over the various plans announced for the Market.

There was an international public tender announced in the 1990s to rehabilitate the building but no progress was made despite a successful tender being awarded.

The matter was raised in the European Parliament as a possible source of EU FEDER (regional development) funding in 2008 but as I understand it no works occurred.

The previous Mayor – Rui Rio – was in office for 11 years (2002-13) and failed to improve the building.

He initially arranged for a company TramCrone (TCN) to demolish the building and convert the location into a commercial private shopping centre.

The plans included 6 stories of air-conditioned shops, low-wage jobs, and all the major up-market brands. A total rejection of the existing open-air building and local traders selling local produce (although that is not exactly what exists now).

The Plataforma de Intervenção Cívica do Porto (Civic Intervention Platform of Porto) was formed in 2008 to defend the Bolhão Market – to renovate it back to its original glory and to oppose the privatisation of the building which would advance the interests of speculative capital at the expense of the people of Porto.

The Mayor tried to avoid the Platform but the growing groundswell against the privatisation (more than 50,000 signatures were presented to the government) led to the Local Government annulling the (unsigned) contract with TCN, and, instead, announcing a renovation plan within the current uses of the space.

This was the result of an agreement between the Ministério da Cultura (Ministry of Culture) and the local government.

But the financial allocations necessary to accomplish this task were left unresolved. The matter went to court – the local government wanted compensation from TCN for non-signing of the deal.

Rui Rio lost office in 2013 and was replaced as Mayor by Rui Moreira, the author of the comment yesterday. He promised to renovate the building and create a “um novo mercado aberto em 2015” (a new open market by 2015) using EU and/or private funding (Source.

In December 2013, Rui Moreira also suggested some sort of “institutional partnership” (a public-private model) for redevelopment. But by October 2014 was suggesting a public model as long as EU funds were forthcoming.

On April 22, 2015, the City of Porto released the press statement – Projeto do Bolhão apresentado hoje – where it announced it was going to renovate the Market using its own finances.

The minimalist renovation would include some new innovations (for example, lifts to the upper floor).

The tenders would go out after the Northern summer but there is no commitment to complete the project according to any schedule (“concurso público para a execução da obra será lançado depois do próximo verão, mas não se compromete com datas para a finalização da mesma”).

Whether this latest plan goes ahead is another matter. The previous plans have all failed. The citizens remain deeply suspicious that this plan is another Trojan Horse designed to allay fears while privatisation in some form or another is made possible.

I don’t know the answer to that. It is possible the current Mayor is totally committed to a public solution that preserves the heritage and function and is not renewing tenancies because of the safety factor.

Hotels

I noted in my report that tourism was a major source of income in Porto now as its industrial base has declined. There have been many concessions made by the government to the hotel industry.

I noted that what was the old post office building before privatisation is now the premises of a hotel chain. I reported the facts that Porto hotel owners (many of them transnational firms) were given millions from the bailout funds to develop their businesses.

The old post office building facade was kept and a new concrete shell was constructed to accommodate the new hotel.

The growing number of hotels have increasingly abandoned the ‘contract’ employment model which requires them to pay their workers at least the minimum wage.

Instead, they are hire workers as independent contractors and some of these workers are paid around 2.80 euros per hour, well below the minimum wage.

The Mayor responded accusing me of lying:

The economic situation of hotels is not what you have been told. According to the latest figures available, for booking sites, Porto is the european city where hotel prices have risen more sharply in the last year.

I mentioned nothing about the prices of the hotel rooms. The facts I concentrated on were:

1. The bailout handouts to the hotel companies.

2. The shift of workers from ‘contract’ to ‘non contract’ which has undermined the coverage of the minimum wage system.

The Mayor doesn’t refute those ‘facts’ and I stand by my conclusions.

Buildings in the Centre of Porto

I noted there were many buildings – whole street sections in fact – were abandoned and the buildings were in decay while there was a housing crisis in the city.

The Mayor responded accusing me of lying:

As for policies regarding the local population in the center of Porto, please read Monocle. They came here, they stayed for days. They did not tour the city with those who just want to make some money showing the bad side of the coin.

Yes, the reports in Monocle are interesting. You can see an interesting film by Monocle – Porto Revival – on the work of the current Mayor Rui Moreira. There is no doubt that he is committed to reviving the inner city.

But the reality is that if you walk the length and breadth of inner city (up stairs, down hills and all around), the sites that one could call being revived scale into an order of insignificance compared to the derelict and falling down buildings.

The point I made was not that revival is underway but that the poor who have been deeply damaged by the austerity need better housing and yet there is no working policy structure to bring that cohort into renovated housing.

The story I told of the abandoned shopping centre now being used by musicians as rehearsal space is a success. But just next door there is an old Ford motor works site with many buildings that are lying idle and degrading because there is no incentive structure to force the owners to make the buildings available.

The local government could change its tax structure to increase the land tax on unoccupied properties to such a level that the owners had to sell at value (not the anticipated speculative value that the hoped for gentrification will bring) or renovate the buildings themselves.

I believe such proposals have been rejected.

The local government could also mediate between artisan groups and property owners to allow the former to use the unoccupied buildings of the former and create some jobs and economic activity.

I was told the local government has not shown a willingness to do that.

As to the Mayor’s allegations that the group running the “Worst Tours” “just want to make some money showing the bad side of the coin” the facts are quite different.

The tours last several hours and are highly instructive. The guides are youngish unemployed architects who have a love for the city and a deep appreciation of its history. It was really helpful to listen to them. I learned a lot about the urban development history, the reasons the buildings are certain widths and depths (local building materials!), the concept of urban “islands” – the multi-developments of little dwellings (as in-fill to the blocks) which house poorer workers, and more.

Finally, despite the tours lasting for hours, participants are under no obligations, nor are pressured in any way to pay for the excellent service.

Any payment is by way of donation and could be zero!

My final impression

Porto is a totally awesome place to visit. It is a beautiful city – with lots of very interesting history.

The light rail system is excellent. It is fast and efficient and relatively cheap.

You could easily spend months there.

Just outside the main city on either side of the mouth of the River Douro are the beaches. And the infrastructure there is first rate – running and cycling tracks, boardwalks, and little cafes.

But the city has been severely impacted by the deindustrialisation and the austerity.

There was one building – in the Brazilian architectural style – not far south of the metro stop Marquês and in a street parallel to Santa Caterina – which not long ago sold for around 500,000 euros. It is in a degraded state and unused. The owners did some work on the high external fence facing the street – not a great investment.

The current price they want only months after the purchase is around 1 million euros.

That is what happens in a real estate market that is being gentrified.

I also agree with the Mayor that we conduct tours in any city and find negative aspects. But it would be hard to see a city in such decline as the inner parts of Porto.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2015 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    2 Responses to My response to the Mayor of Porto

    1. Andi says:

      Can’t believe the Mayor of Porto attacked my lovely city of Birmingham unprovoked! Yes, there are bad parts, every city etc etc but the problems we face in the West Midlands certainly do not appear to be the same as Porto.

      However, I humbly accept the Mayor’s offer to give me a tour of Birmingham ;)

    2. Dubby says:

      With Birmingham, one needs to know the good places because they aren’t quite as apparent like london. With regards to the supposed mayor’s comment about birmingham, I would like him to further elaborate on it and maybe do a comparison with Porto. This might just tempt people to check porto out.

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