|Gov. Calderón's Blue Ribbon Commission dropped a bombshell this week when it recommended the possible demolition of a brand spanking new luxury condominium in Puerta de Tierra because of alleged irregularities in the land purchase from the government and subsequent permitting procedures. The group's findings might bear further investigation, but its proposed solution is a blatant example of Puerto Rico's unending political infighting taking precedence over the public good.
The Independent Citizens Committee to Investigate Government Transactions, appointed by Gov. Calderón, has been sniffing through transactions taken under the previous administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló. This is its seventh report so far.
Gov. Calderón referred the group's finding on the Millennium condominium project to the Justice Department for investigation. In announcing the move, Blue Ribbon President David Noriega, who ran against Rosselló under the Puerto Rican Independence Party flag in 1996, said that if Justice finds that the project violates zoning standards or turns up evidence of influence-peddling in the permitting project, the panel recommends tearing the building down and charging the owner for the demolition.
The panel doesn't shy away from the fact that it is centering on transactions under the previous administration; it says during Rosselló's tenure valuable public holdings "were sold in violation of applicable laws and regulations, causing grave damage to the public coffers."
The panel, which also includes former Comptroller Ileana Colón Carlo and former judge and Justice secretary Carmen Rita Vélez Borrás, has turned up some interesting findings, good leads for Justice. And it has survived federal court challenges to its existence, with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston finding Calderón had the right to appoint the committee and that because it was a private panel, it did not deny any subject due process rights.
But it can still not completely shake off old charges of political opportunism in its investigations. The fact that Millennium developer is César Cabrera, a prominent statehooder who is executive director of the Republican Party in Puerto Rico, only adds to the perception.
"This is a political witchhunt," Cabrera told reporters of the report, saying they are just targeting him because he is related to New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera.
"It would be crazy for them to tear down the building," he said. He's right that it would be "crazy" to tear down the building. But what Cabrera does not say is commuters passing the construction site thought it was a bit "crazy" to build a 16-story condo on what was essentially a highway divider.
One of the commission's least reported findings, and one of its most important, is questions over the safety of the access of the building, built between two busy throroughfares leading to Old San Juan. If substantiated, that needs to be addressed.
The report also charged that the property had a real value of $2 million, $800,000 above the $1.2 million purchase price. The price discrepancy was further punctuated by the fact that the public paid for much of the access roads to the building. Meanwhile, Cabrera said his development company would earn $64 million in sales - before the report's findings were made public, anyway.
But the report's central contention is that the building is in "crass" violation of local zoning standards, which calls for public lands to be used for government buildings or housing projects in the area. The plot was previously contemplated as both an Urban Train station and a Supreme Court addition. The report also contends that the zoning area calls for buildings of no more than eight stories; the Millennium has 16. NPP Sen Norma Burgos, former Planning Board president, disputes this, saying the building is within the area's height limit of 140 feet over land and 170 feet over sea.
The real problem, however, is that the commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been in "crass" violation of its own zoning rules for years, all over the place. It is a real issue that needs to be addressed. But more than half the problem could be solved by an overhaul of government regulations - and such agencies responsible for them as the Planning Board and the Permits and Regulations Administration. Prosecuting developers for working within that framework seems to be almost beside the point. The Millennium developer does have all the pertinent permits after all.
If real malfeasance is found, those involved should be prosecuted. There are a multitude of remedies available besides tearing the building down, which would only hurt untold innocent victims, including families who have already purchased units.
And remember, the commonwealth gives deals to businesses that seam like steals everyday, and has been doing so since the opening days of Operation Bootstrap. That alone is not cause for prosecution, although it should be the subject of vigorous public policy debate. A critic of the project at first, I must say I've been won over by the elegant Millennium, which has worked its way nicely into the Puerta de Tierra skyline, a nice counterpoint to the Caribe Hilton.
Tearing it down would be stupid. Especially when it is so innocuous compared to other high-rises that are threatening to be built, against resident objections and local zoning standards, along San Juan's coastline, which is already hidden behind a wall of condominiums and hotels in Condado and Isla Verde.
It is perhaps too late to fulfill a dream of a true malecón in San Juan, a view of the sea along the coast from Old San Juan to Boca de Cangrejos - a view the Millennium would not mar -- but it's about time that government officials should be stopped from granting permits that do not conform to zoning standards.
That's the real story of the Blue Ribbon report, although its members never really come out and say so.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net