19 January 2011

The March of the White Elephants

And I’m back...

The headline of Page 4 of the OGlobo sports section on 18.1.2011 was “Paisagem em Transformação” (Landscape in Transformation). The subheading – ‘On the margens of the BR-408, in São Lourenço da Mata, 19 km from Recife, the task is to hurry up with the construction for the Arena Pernambucano so that it will be ready before the Confederations Cup in 2013’. The picture that accompanied this descriptive and ominous heading was of a dumptruck on top of a large pile of rubble fore-grounded by a flagged stick that marked the eventual midfield dot. The article was a mixture of optimistic projections and grim realities, though the latter have to be read between the lines.

Estádio José do Rego Maciel Stadium (Arruda) in Recife
Santa Cruz
Some background. Recife already has three stadiums, one each for the city’s principal teams - Sport, Náutico, and Santa Cruz (see photos). None of these were considered for renovation or modification for the Copa. The current project is being developed on a Greenfield site in the suburbs, has an initial budget of R$ 532 million (US$ 302 million), a capacity for 46,000 spectators and parking for 6,000 cars. The Arena Pernambucana is going to cover a massive area (218 hectares – a donation from the state) and will include the building of nine thousand apartments. The entire project is being directed by Odebrecht which is operating under a public-private-partnership. It is unclear how much money Odebrecht had to put up front, but the Pernambuco State Secretary for the World Cup told OGlobo that the apartments should generate R$33 milllion for ‘private investors’.  Odebrecht has contracted the USA-based entertainment giant AEG Facilities and ISG (International Stadia Group) to run the show for the next thirty years. OGlobo happily reports that AEG is responsible for bringing Paul McCartney, the Black Eyed Peas, and Bon Jovi to Brazil! Wow! The president of the State Copa Secretariat was also quick to point out that Ajax ArenA hosted a royal wedding and that the Arena Pernumbucano could, what, host Lula’s traveling circus act? Fala sério meu irmão.
Estádio Eládio de Barros Carvalho (Aflitos) in Recife

Estádio Ademar da Costa Carvalho (Ilha do Retiro) Stadium in Recife
The plan, therefore, is to have all three of Recife’s teams play their games in the new Arena. None of these teams are currently in the first Brazilian division. Of course, if the teams decide to play in the stadiums they already have, the plan to have an “economically sustainable” [sic] stadium will be shot. In which case, the state government will be obliged to pay Odebrecht around R$ 5 million a year. Public risk, private profit. The president of the Odebrecht Consórico said that the local teams “shouldn’t bother with the management of their stadiums whose maintenance costs are not compatible with their financial situations.” What?

Because these teams can no longer afford the maintenance costs of their stadiums (which is likely not true), they should abandon them? Náutico averaged 15,954 and Sport 15,667 fans in 2009 while in the 1st division, Santa Cruz averaged 38,249 while in the 4th division. These are far from pathetic numbers, did anyone ask the teams if they had trouble maintaining their stadia? The president of the state football federation said, “The problem is that fans here have the culture of watching their teams play at home. It’s not easy to move this idea in their heads.” No kidding. It’s also difficult to imagine an arena that is 19km from the city center being a site of convergence for the tens of thousands of people that will have to consume there on a weekly basis to make the project anything but a drain on public coffers.

Arena Pernambucana.
The raw beauty of contextualized urbanism. 
It appears that the plan for Recife is for the public to invest massively in a stadium project, hand it over to a private firm, and if the stadium turns out not to be economically viable the state will have to subsidize the loss while the private entity makes out like bandits on the real-estate development project. In addition to this and perhaps more insidious is the R$3 billion, yes billion, that will be invested in transportation infrastructure. As we saw in Johannesburg and are witnessing in Rio, these transportation projects do not necessarily attend to the real needs of the city. Hopefully there will be some more information forthcoming about the nature of these transportation projects. The degree of improvisation that is happening in most sectors of “planning” for the world cup was revealed in the final paragraphs of the article. The State Secretary for the Cup Ricardo Leitão said that a potential shortage of hotel rooms was not really a concern because many tourists were probably going to sleep aboard their trans-Atlantic ocean liners during the Cup and that the secretary of tourism was going to start registering residents who want to put people up in their homes. Actually, this last idea is very good, but probably not the first or most readily available option for nervous international tourists coming to Brazil for the first time.  

The march of the white elephants continues.

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