Gentrification in Progress in Bogota’s Progresa Fenicia
A new initiative, Progresa Fenicia, hopes to invest $250 million in renovating the Fenicia Triangle neighborhood with a plan defined by public space, mixed uses, and innovative financing schemes. Depending on who you talk to, Progresa Fenicia is either an innovative approach to rehabilitating distressed neighborhoods or just another example of gentrification in a Global South context.
Las Aguas fountains run from the base of Monserrate, connecting Bogota’s east mountains with the bustling city center. On the south side of Las Aguas stands the distinguished campus of Colombia’s most prestigious private university, Universidad de los Andes. The working-class Fenicia Triangle neighborhood, run down after years of institutional neglect and increasingly populated by illegal settlements on the hillside, sits just meters away opposite the fountains.
Universidad de los Andes and the Fenicia Triangle neighborhood have coexisted for more than forty years. But Maurix Saúrez, the campus director for the Progresa Fenicia initiative, described the existing town-gown relationship as contributing to neglect in the Fenicia neighborhood: even after the recent construction of a campus building in the center of the neighborhood, the fluctuation of students and staff between school hours and after-hours led to instability and deterioration in the area. In his opinion, “The answer has to be: a big generation of public space, mixed uses of commercial, residential and hotel space, a limit to university use of the space (15%), and diverse uses that are used for the entire year.” In 2010, the Progresa Fenicia initative project was born.
The new plan focuses on reclaiming public space in the neighborhood, from 43% currently to a proposed total of 70% public space. This goal will mainly be achieved by densifying the existing housing stock from houses to apartments, while retaining a meter per meter rehousing promise to the 460 families in the neighborhood who will be displaced by the project. New construction will be mixed-use, combining retail, apartments and VIP housing options. An innovative financing scheme for the mixed-use buildings hopes to combat residents’ concerns about increasing costs of living in the revamped neighborhood: income from the retail and high-end housing uses in the building will be used to subsidize costs for low-income residents who will be rehoused in the new buildings.
The Universidad de los Andes characterizes the project as a social investment in a failing neighborhood and highlights the participatory nature of the project. What’s more, they have aggressively defended the initiative against the gentrification label. The website for the project addresses the question of gentrification head on and argues that the university, as a not-for-profit entity, is best suited to the challenge of renovating a poor, working-class neighborhood. Furthermore, Saúrez points to four years of participation and discussion with affected residents. He says since 2010, the university has conducted more than 300 meetings with residents, including general interest meetings, focus groups and meetings with individual residents and business owners. He says the university is completely committed to a process of transparency and wants to convey to the neighborhood that “Everyone is playing by the same rules.”
However, a group of Fenicia residents have been organizing for years against the Progresa Fenicia initiative and criticize many elements of the university’s description of the project. Under the banner “Don’t Take Las Aguas”, residents have advocated for more concessions from the university and stronger legal frameworks to protect displaced residents. María Angélica Rodríguez and Marcela Castillo are two long-time residents who have organized marches, demonstrations and written editorials in leading Bogotá newspapers opposing the project. Speaking with the two of them is like hearing the exact same story except from a completely contradictory perspective. For example, the ‘meter for meter’ rehousing promise at the center of the project? Rodríguez and Castillo say that initial proposals from the university included only a 50% promise, later slowly raised in increments to the 100% guarantee after years of resistance from the neighborhood. Likewise, the subsidizing financing scheme to account for cost-of-living increases was also only added after sustained advocacy on the part of Don’t Take Las Aguas.
Rodríguez and Castillo also criticize the project for failing to include legal protections for many of the promises made in the plan. They say that the mixed-use income financing is not codified in any sort of legal document and so they have only the word of the university to go on. But Castillo says, “in forty years, the university has not done anything for the neighborhood.” In their minds, why should they trust los Andes now?
At the core of the Progresa Fenicia resistance movement are major concerns about gentrification in the neighborhood. The redevelopment plan lacks much in the way of improving incomes for residents living in the Fenicia Triangle and so even if the rehousing promise is realized (about which Rodríguez and Castillo are skeptical), residents may not be able to afford generalized increases in costs of living. Furthermore, from their perspective, the participatory nature of the project is topical and does not represent a true bottom-up approach to reimagining the space. Don’t Take Las Aguas describes the decision-making process as essentially top-down, consisting of a committee of eight people, with two representatives each from the university, the city, the developers and the neighborhood. Yet Rodríguez emphasizes that the university, the city and the developers are all aligned to move the project forward, making the committee essentially six against two advocating for the community.
In early October, the city government signed Decree 420 of 2014, giving the green light to Universidad de los Andes to move forward with the project. After four years of discussion and negotiations with neighborhood residents, Suárez says los Andes is eager to move from the Formulation Phase to the Planning and Execution Phase. On the part of Don’t Take Las Aguas, Rodríguez and Castillo say that at this point they do not think it is possible to block the project entirely but plan to continue their advocacy demanding stronger legal protections for displaced residents as the project moves forward. Over the next ten years, as Progresa Fenicia moves forward, it will represent a complete transformation of the city center and microcosm of planning and participation efforts occurring across Bogotá and Colombia.