Este informe no está disponible en español.
Legal Battle Over Environmental Compliance Threatens To Delay Tourism Industrys Most Critical Project
Circuit Court of Appeals revokes Planning Boards site plan for new Convention Center; Puerto Rico Tourism Co. must redo an environmental impact statement
BY EVELYN GUADALUPE-FAJARDO
July 4, 2002
The future of the $365 million Convention Center in Isla Grande, the tourism industrys most important project, is up in the air.
The Convention Center, one of the few Rossello Administration projects to be approved by Gov. Calderon, may not be ready to open by September 2004, two months before the next general elections.
Last week, the local Circuit Court of Appeals revoked the Planning Boards site plan resolution for the construction of the Convention Center, sending the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. back to the drawing board. The agency must now generate a revised environmental impact statement (EIS) that is consonant with the proposed project before any further work on the Convention Center can be done.
"The Convention Center is a demand-generator project that will put Puerto Rico on another level, and now we have to stop work on it and sit down with lawyers to put this project back in motion," said Milton Segarra, executive director of the Tourism Co.
The courts decision (made by Judges Urgell Cuebas, Cordero, and Brau Ramirez) favored petitioner Empresas Fonalledas, owners of Plaza Las Americas, who in May 2000 filed a Planning Board Resolution Revision request challenging the boards approval of the project as presented.
Empresas Fonalledas claimed the amount of designated commercial and office space seemed to contradict that these applications would be ancillary to the Convention Center. Instead, it seemed to indicate an intention to develop a full-fledged commercial center. If so, given the Convention Centers tax-exempt status, it would unfairly compete against Plaza Las Americas, the islands largest shopping center, and other retailers in the Old San Juan area.
Empresas Fonalledas said it tried to get the former administration to address its objections before taking the case to court. The company also tried to reach an agreement with the Calderon Administration, to no avail.
The court found that the Planning Board committed one major error: It authorized substantial changes by the Tourism Co. that had not been endorsed by the Environmental Quality Board.
Some of the changes reflected increases in the square footage of the hotels, office and commercial space, restaurants, and residential area to be developed, all components of the World Trade Districts Super Block.
The Super Blocks first of two hotels, for example, originally was allotted 494,075 square feet (according to the projects EIS) and now has 941,600 square feet. Likewise, the commercial and restaurant area that originally had 203,434 square feet now has an additional 57,774 square feet.
While the total area where the Convention Center is to be built has not changed, the construction area has increased from 4.5 million square feet to 5.4 million square feet. That is 20% more land to be developed than was originally projected.
However, the government said earlier this year that the Districts Super Block component, which will complement the Convention Center, would be built later because the project had no developer. The former administration had chosen LCOR to develop the Super Block, but the company was unable to reach an accord with the Calderon Administration.
"We are going to maintain our position, which is to build a world-class convention center," Segarra said. "And no individual or private interest is above that goal."
According to court documents, the Tourism Co. has violated and continues to violate its obligation to insist on the faithful implementation of public policy regarding environmental conservation.
The Tourism Co. has been in discussions with the lawyers of Empresas Fonalledas to try to remove the Convention Center from the legal entanglement. If that fails, Segarra said, the government will then decide which avenue to take.
"The first phase of the Convention Center does not include a hotel or commercial, office, or retail space," Segarra said. "If Empresas Fonalledas wants to challenge the EIS, lets take the Convention Center out of the picture, as it has nothing to do with their claim."
The Calderon Administration had been moving full-speed ahead with the installation of foundation piles at the site. The government had also boasted that the project was two months ahead of schedule. Once operational, the center will require 3,000 employees and is expected to have an estimated economic impact of $92 million annually.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.