Bold Plans for Rio’s Port Zone

Demolition and construction are already underway in some parts of the Zona Portuária. Taylor Barnes for Latin Trade

A makeover, akin to those of Barcelona and Buenos Aires, aims to transform a rundown district.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Hundreds of thousands of Africans came through what was then a slave port. Today, ruins of the 19th-century wharf are still unearthed next to the thickly polluted waters of the Guanabara Bay. The tourists who might pass by are likely to glimpse only the graffiti-scrawled colonial buildings en route from the international airport to the elegant beachside neighborhoods farther south.
But the Zona Portuária (port zone) is where Rio de Janeiro development officials see the most potential to attract visitors and well-to-do locals to the dilapidated downtown.
The revitalization effort gained momentum in June, when the city sold the rights to exceed zoning height restrictions for about 3.5 billion reais (US$1.9 billion) to the federal government’s Caixa Econômica, which is marketing the permits to investors. Permit proceeds will finance the public works and services in the zone, which covers 5 million square meters (about 2 square miles).
“The motive is really simple — it’s an area of privileged location,” says Jorge Arraes, a civil engineer and president of the Rio Port Development Company (CDURP, its Portuguese acronym), a city-led entity with public and private funding.
CDURP envisions new parks, plazas and greenery to foster pedestrian activity, akin to the port makeovers of San Francisco, Buenos Aires and Barcelona. Buildings at the historic entrance, the Praça Mauá, are slated to be turned into Museu de Arte Rio de Janeiro, one of two museums planned in partnership with the Fundaçao Roberto Marino.
“It will not be [high-rise] buildings like on the Copacabana beach,” Arraes says of future construction.
The goal is to complete the overhaul by 2016, when Rio hosts the Olympics. CDURP also aims to increase the residential population in one of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods, from an estimated 20,000 currently to 100,000, through new construction.
“I don’t believe that it will be luxury enterprises. It will be for hotels, commercial establishments and homes for the middle class,” says Alexandre Sampaio, president of the Brazilian Hospitality and Food Federation.
Rio’s master plan for the port zone calls for the demolition of the Perimetral elevated highway, which runs along the waterfront, and replacing it with a tunnel.
Urban planners blast the idea, saying the busy road is an efficient link in an already-congested area.
But Helena Orenstein de Almeida, Brazil country director of the NGO  Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, applauds the tunnel initiative for creating open spaces and supporting the creation of a live-work environment that will help stem the population shift to far-flung suburbs.
Others counter that the plan will displace residents, in addition to those in the historic favela Providência, whose buildings will give way to a cable-car system.
An aide to city councilman Eliomar Coelho, a vocal opponent of the port-zone project, predicts that most current residents will be squeezed out.
“Even those families that aren’t [directly] removed end up not having the means to sustain themselves in that region,” says the aide, Jorge Borges, a geographer.

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