A multi-sectoral forum is scheduled on May 25 at the Iloilo Grand Hotel to discuss various ways to revive Calle Real (J.M. Basa St. today). Spearheaded by the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council (ICCHCC), the forum will be participated by representatives of the Iloilo City government headed by Mayor Jerry Treñas, Canadian Urban Institute, the local business sector, urban development experts and other groups. All the participants will be expected to give their inputs on how best to restore the “glory that was Calle Real.”
The “Save Calle Real” project involves the rehabilitation not only J.M. Basa St. but includes the entire “old quarter” of Iloilo City, which tumandoks (oldtimers) normally refer to as the “downtown” area. The project also includes Aldeguer, Mapa, Guanco and Iznart where most of Iloilo’s stylish Art Deco buildings are located.
Calle Real during the early 19th century was known as the “Escolta of the South.” The entire Western Visayas back then was in the midst of the sugar boom and Calle Real was the epicenter of the sugar import trade. It was where you can find all the wealthiest sugar trading houses, most elegant offices, trendiest bars and restaurants, and the leading shopping bazaars of the era. For Filipinos back then, Calle Real was the most “happening” place south of Manila, sort of like Ayala Avenue meets Malate-Adriatico. And because of its proximity to the bustling Muelle Loney port, it was relatively common to see British sailors on shore leave, American sugar traders, Scottish engineers and Chinese merchants strolling along its sidewalks.
The Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council would like to make things happen again for Calle Real. But in my view, the project has to overcome several obstacles for it to become successful and sustainable.
One, how do you alter people’s perceptions in order to again draw them to Calle Real? Nowadays, young Ilonggos feel it is not “hip” to be seen in Calle Real. They prefer to shop at airconditioned malls and party at restaurants located along the General Luna-Diversion Road strip. Even if the Iloilo City government can source foreign funding for the project, Calle Real suffers from an “image” problem which may affect the long term viability and sustainability of businesses along that part of the city.
Iloilo City planners may wish to look into how Manila revived its Mabini-Malate-Adriatico area, long regarded as Manila’s red light district. Today, that area in Manila is littered with the trendiest coffee shops, restaurants and bars, and is a favorite hang-out of Manila’s intelligentsia and foreign tourists. Tourists, both foreign and local, are forever searching for new and unique experiences and Calle Real could easily capture that “old world” ambiance that Malate is famous for.
But with the Iloilo City government announcing plans to sell and develop the Mandurriao airport into a new Commercial and Business District (CBDs), a second obstacle would be how to generate enough capital and investor interest to develop both Mandurriao and Calle Real simultaneously. Prospective investors and existing locators in Calle Real might become hesitant to plow in more money in the project if they see a new and more modern commercial area being developed in Mandurriao. Also, the local market might be too small to sustain multiple commercial districts in Iloilo. Office buildings in Makati and Ortigas, for example, are currently suffering from low occupancy rates because of the “over-construction” of the early 1990s.
In the past, Calle Real flourished because of its proximity to Muelle Loney which acted as the clearinghouse for the region’s sugar importation business. Businessmen chose to set up their businesses in that area because it was near the center of the “action” – the lucrative sugar trade. In fact, during those times, business establishments were judged based on their location vis-avis Muelle Loney: the farther you are from Muelle Loney, the less prestigious your office. But with the sugar gone and Muelle Loney operating more as a domestic terminal rather than an international port, Calle Real must find another reason for its existence.
Calle Real is a living museum, a surviving testament to Iloilo City’s glorious past. It is a mirror, an indicator of Iloilo City’s economy. When times are good, Calle Real is abuzz with economic activity. When times are hard, Calle Real is a sleepy strip. If given a choice, I would prioritize the rehabilitation of Calle Real over the development of Mandurriao. Calle Real gives Iloilo City its distinct character and unique identity whereas Mandurriao would make our city look more and more like any other city in the Philippines. Take out Calle Real and Iloilo would not look and feel like Iloilo. Develop Mandurriao into another mall complex and Iloilo would look and feel more and more like Manila or Cebu. Let us just hope that development of the old Mandurriao airport would take several years so as to give Calle Real enough time to resurrect itself.