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Downtown Iloilo dubbed as the Central Business District (CBD) Heritage Zone and the city’s “Chinatown” needs rehabilitation, the Consultants for Comprehensive Environmental Planning, Inc. (Concep) said in its study.

“In general, downtown Iloilo, particularly the Heritage Zone, conveys an image similar to Binondo in downtown Manila of several years ago—old, run-down buildings with interesting architectural facades but needing repairs and renovation,” Concep stressed in its report.

Iloilo’s Chinatown encompasses the triangular area bounded by Iznart-JM Basa-Aldeguer streets in the City Proper.

The Heritage Zone includes commercial-residential mixed blocks bounded by the major streets of JM Basa, Iznart, Muelle Loney, Rizal and General Luna.

It stretches to neighboring blocks bounded by the side streets of Guanco, Arroyo, Aldeguer, Arsenal, Mapa, Delgado, Yulo, Solis, and Aduana.

“The land use is dominantly commercial with very little residential uses which also appear rundown and poorly maintained,” Concep added.

What’s “killing” the Chinatown?

“Traffic congestion is pervasive as evidenced by several streets serving as jeepney routes and mixing of different transport modes including tricycles and trisikads. There also appears a lack of parking as some sidewalks are used for the purpose. This is further aggravated by jaywalking and general disregard for designated loading/unloading zones,” the consultant firm assessed.

“While the buildings are arcaded, sidewalks are also congested caused mainly by ambulant vendors and illegal structures. Certain establishments also extend their business operations onto the sidewalks including repair of cars and installation of car accessories,” it added.

The Chinese-Filipino dominated business hub in the heart of metropolis has been “chaotic.”

“Signs and billboards are chaotic, most of it not blending with the beautiful architectural ornaments of the Art Deco-style buildings. Further promoting the overall chaotic visual image of the area is the spaghetti-like overhead wires and cables,” Concep said.

Is the Chinatown here really dying?

“According to several city residents, due to the competition from the newer shopping malls, many of the small businesses in the downtown area have closed down resulting in general decline of the area’s economy,” Concep disclosed.

“The enterprises remained are the ones which appear to have been able to adjust to the changing business environment. In spite of the economic downturn, business in the downtown area still manages to attract a good number of people,” the study explained.

What’s keeping the Chinatown alive as a thriving business haven?

“The public market is still a magnet for shoppers despite its congestion. There are also many banks in the area. Certain streets still enjoy a certain level of business especially those which have become identified with specific products they offer,” the consultants clarified.

Guanco Street has been synonymous to jewelry and goldsmith shops;

Aldeguer Street for dry goods, textiles and pawnshops;

Iznart Street for hardware and banks; and JM Basa for retail stores, restaurants and Central market.

“The downtown area was the city’s original commercial hub and offered a wide range of retail, service and entertainment facilities. It also includes residential units including those in the upper floors of commercial buildings,” the study’s findings said.

“However, the growth of the city coupled with changes in demographics and retail shopping preferences basically altered the role of the main street commercial centers. As people became more affluent and dependent on motor vehicles, they moved to newer residential communities further out, preferring larger stores with convenient parking over smaller neighborhood shops,” Concep noted.

It added: “This trend continues, with many consumers favoring full-service shopping malls and modern office centers.

“The deterioration of downtown area can be attributed to several factors with some of the external causes such as changes brought about by new arterial roads which opened up new areas for development; increased reliance on motor vehicles; inability of the pre-automobile street to cope with major space and movement demands; and locational decisions of industries vis-à-vis transport,” said the urban development assessment.

The entry of giant malls is considered a threat to Chinatown.

“Another major external factor is new developments in outer areas such as shopping malls. Internal causes to downtown area include shortage of space and higher rents causing businesses to move out to outer cheaper areas. It is also the neglect in maintenance, traffic congestion, ineffective building controls and the inability to manage urban growth,” Concep said.

The mushrooming subdivisions in neighboring areas have also pulled out investments from the urban center.

“But most of all, it is the exodus of the people to outlying suburban residential areas such as Jaro and Mandurriao and even as far as municipalities of Pavia and San Miguel. The overall result is the considerable weakening of the downtown in its primary function— service as a retail center,” Concep observed.

An analysis of the existing situation reveals that while there are ongoing initiatives to energize the CBD, these initiatives are insufficient and will need strengthening especially in the light of competition from emerging new commercial places.

In order to achieve the goals as well as benefits of revitalizing the CBD, an explicit Downtown Improvement Program needs to be organized based upon a comprehensive Downtown Redevelopment Plan.

Concep recommended that actions should be undertaken including defining the commercial role of CBD as an alternative shopping mall and initiating establishment of a downtown improvement office, among others.

Concep was hired by the Metro Iloilo Guimaras Economic Development Council (MIGEDC) to draft an Integrated Urban and Regional Infrastructure Plan Project which is a package assistance funded by Australian Agency for International Development’s (AusAid) Local Governance Development Program (LGDP).

This story first appeared in The Guardian November 26, 2007