Porto Maravilha: Reclaiming Rio de Janeiro’s neglected port

Although downtown Rio de Janeiro’s port is steeped in Brazilian history, it had turned into a neglected no-man’s land — one of the uglier areas in a city that has one of the most privileged natural settings in the world.

Buildings with smashed windows stood sentinel by a decrepit elevated highway that slashed through the port area and cut off the waterfront from the rest of downtown. The area also was plagued by chronic flooding and sewage that seeped into the drainage system.

Beautiful Belle Epoque buildings along nearby Avenida Rio Branco became lost amid the chaotic jumble, and big chunks of the national patrimony were virtually unknown to many Brazilians because hardly anyone visited the gritty waterfront.

But state, local and federal governments have used this month’s World Cup and Rio Olympics in 2016 as a catalyst to push through the Porto Maravilha — or Marvelous Port — project, which will eventually include hotels, office complexes, residences, leisure space and a light-rail transit line.

The 2.5-mile elevated highway is coming down, buildings are being restored, bikeways are planned, outdated sewer and water systems are being replaced, a new art education center has opened, and a new science museum designed by starchitect Santiago Calatrava is rising along a pier that juts out into Guanabara Bay.

It’s called Museum of Tomorrow and symbolizes the hope for a new future for downtown Rio. “ O amanha e hoje” (Tomorrow is today) reads a billboard in front of the museum site. The building is about 50 percent completed.

“We are looking at downtown as a desirable area now for the first time in 50 years,” said Washington Fajardo, president of the Rio World Heritage Institute.

“We’re on a very tight schedule. We need to finish everything before the Olympics,” said Daniel Van Raemdonck de Lima, a supervisor at the Port Regional Urban Development Co., or CDURP, which is managing the Porto Maravilha project.

The city hopes to get the same type of boost that spurred Barcelona, Spain, when it revitalized its decrepit waterfront, creating a beachfront and marina, for the 1992 Olympic Games.

“From what I see in the planning, Rio de Janeiro is going to be a fantastically different city after the Olympic Games,” predicted Deputy Sports Minister Luis Fernandes, a Rio native. “We will absolutely have a renewed and modern city.”

When Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes took office in 2009, his administration decided change was imperative for the city, which had been on a downward spiral since the federal capital was moved to Brasilia in 1960. Enamored of the American culture of the car and suburban living, Rio’s middle class also began shifting to Barra da Tijuca southwest of the city center in the 1970s.

Polls showed Rio residents were losing confidence and pride in their city.

The Porto Marvilha project, which began in 2009, is just one of many major public works projects in progress. Among them are a subway link that will connect the posh seaside neighborhood of Ipanema to Barra da Tijuca, three major highway/bus rapid-transit routes, and new services for favelas (slum neighborhoods).

Most transit projects won’t be ready for this month’s World Cup, but the hope is that they will be finished in time to speed travel between Olympic venues, the seaside hotel district and the international airport.

Another project that would have tied port revitalization into the Olympics has been canceled. The mayor’s office said in March that for economic reasons it had decided against a planned 17-block Olympic media village at the port. The new plan is to house journalists and referees in Barra da Tijuca, where a number of sports venues and the athletes’ village will be located.

Planners question the loss of the potential economic stimulus of the media center at the port, as well as housing the media in suburban Barra, which is already highly residential and doesn’t need the pop.

Full build-out of Porto Maravilha is expected to stretch well beyond the Olympics deadline, however.

For now, workers are racing against time to complete major public projects in the history-rich port. It’s the birthplace of samba, the original entry point for the African slave trade, played a big role in the era of the Brazilian emperors and was the largest port in Brazil until the 19th century.

The shoreline of the Porto Maravilha area once stretched much further into the bay, but the federal government filled in about 247 acres in the early 1900s in an effort to transform the Rio waterfront into a global port. In the process, history was buried.

As work at Porto Maravilha has progressed, significant archeological finds have been unearthed, including the wharf where slaves disembarked, remains of walls from 18th and 19th century buildings, and the cornerstone of the old Customs House, said Fajardo. Thousands of artifacts — including pottery, coins, vintage guns, and jewelry — also have been found.

The Porto Novo Concessionaire, formed by construction companies Odebrecht Infrastructure and Carioca Engenharia, is removing the elevated highway and building the new tunnel system. But it is also in charge of providing city services such as street lighting, garbage collection and landscaping in the port area over the next 15 years.

On a recent day, an excavator chipped away at the road underneath a section of the elevated highway where the decking had already been stripped away and cranes hoisted materials needed to complete the Museum of Tomorrow at the nearby Mauá pier.

Work is also under way on three tunnels along the coastline that will take cars underground. Wide, landscaped pedestrian walkways will be built and new lighting installed to create an urban park. The top of the three-lane tunnels will be sodded and landscaped, providing a green oasis.

The Museu de Arte do Rio — a marriage between the eclectic-style Dom João VI Royal Mansion and a modern former rail station — has opened its doors and also is offering art classes through its Escola do Olhar (School of Vision). A glass-enclosed walkway and a wave-shaped covering over their roofs join the two disparate buildings.

Eventually, walkways will link Praça Mauá and Praça XV de Novembro, the plaza where Brazil’s two emperors were crowned.

Changing traffic patterns and prettier scenery are only one part of the port transformation.

The mayor’s office also wants people to live and work downtown, bringing in 100,000 additional residents to the Porto Maravilha area over the next 10 years.

In 2012, the 1,236-acre site had a population of 32,000. “This is the lowest density in the city,” Fajardo said. One reason: an old law that for almost 40 years prohibited new residential construction in downtown.

There are more than 70 heritage buildings in the original port area that will be renovated, and 530 new housing units are planned. Abandoned buildings are slated to become mixed-income residences that will include units for lower-income people, said Van Raemdonck de Lima.

The hope is that new residents will lead to the creation of small businesses and more jobs.

But there has been push-back from the area’s mostly working-class residents who are weary of the construction and dislocations. In the adjoining community of Morra da Providencia — the oldest favela in Rio — homes of hundreds of poor residents have been slated for removal.

Some port-area residents also are apprehensive of the scale of the planned high-rise projects, fearful of being priced out of their homes and generally suspicious of the government’s intentions.

But residents might have reason to be suspicious. “Rio has had a long history of stopping plans and not finishing projects,” Fajardo said.

CDURP has been holding outreach meetings for everyone from neighbors to taxi drivers to entrepreneurs to explain the changes. Incentives also are being offered so people who refurbish their homes get a 10-year property-tax holiday.

“We told people you are the history of this place,” Van Raemdonck de Lima said. The idea, he said, is to “create a city for everyone.”

To finance the port redevelopment — the country’s largest public/private partnership — Rio is using a novel financial model.

To allow construction of high-rises in Porto Maravilha, the city eliminated previous building-height restrictions. But companies that want to build under the new code must purchase market-traded bonds known as CEPACs at auction.

Proceeds from the bond sales are used to finance public improvements such as 15,000 new trees, bikeways, 53 miles of a new sewage system, and 41 miles of new drainage, as well as to modernize the telecom network and other infrastructure in the special development district. The cost of such improvements are expected to reach $1.7 billion.

Those projects, in turn, are expected to raise real-estate values, lessening developers’ risk.

About 3 percent of the proceeds from CEPAC sales also have been earmarked for historic preservation, culture and traditional organizations in the neighborhood.

So far, about 80 private projects have been approved, including Tishman Speyer’s 22-story Port Corporate Tower with panoramic views of Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain, Porto Atlântico Odebrecht — a seven-tower complex of offices, hotels and stores, and Trump Towers Rio, a complex of five commercial skyscrapers. It’s the first Trump-branded project in Brazil.

Tishman-Speyer also has completed the Galeria project — a retrofit of the iconic Edifício Sul América as an office/retail building.

Also in the works is Le Paris, a $5 million project to convert what was the city’s most famous brothel into a luxury boutique hotel.