When one thinks of Burnham Park, horse rides might come to mind. For those who grew up when Baguio had more pines and fewer malls, the park was a vast green space.
It might not be widely known fact that before Burnham Park was...well, a park, it was actually a grazing ground for the cows of the local Ibaloy people. Less neighing and more mooing happened on the land.
Environmental historian and conservation advocate Dr. Rowena Boquiren explained that when the Spanish colonizers took hold of the area in the 1840s, they built ranches to optimize the use of the land.
The "land" is more a layer of water-bearing rocks—an aquifer—which makes it wet most of the time and thus conducive to the growth of greenery. People from the lowland made the trek up north for a breather here and—with foresight, Boquiren said—in the turn of the 20th century US architect and urban planner Daniel H. Burnham designed the park to ensure healthy urban living for the residents of Baguio.
"I grew up and I became old, remembering Burnham Park having that function for me as a tourist, a young tourist," Boquiren told GMA News Online.
"Lahat nagfi-field trip, nagkikita, nagkakatuwaan, kumakain nang libre dahil puwede kang maglatag ng banig, may grass kang hihigaan—open to the public."
In 2009, the City of Baguio entered into a memorandum of agreement with the University of the Cordilleras to create a Burnham Park Master Development Plan that would, the UC said, "[balance] environmental protection and development through the improvement of ratio between the built-up areas with that of the open space, preservation of existing trees and vegetation and their integration in the total design."
The plan envisioned "enhanced landscaping" and the addition of some structures to the park, including "two multi-level green parking buildings at both ends" of Melvin Jones Field.
The proposal, however, was shelved due to the billion-peso cost.
The city divided the proposal into sections that were more viable, with the parking development plan seen to generate income for other projects inside the park and to decongest traffic in the city's central business area.
Late in 2017, Mayor Mauricio Domogan revived the plan for a multi-level car park, supposedly to solve the overcrowding of motor vehicles in the city, especially during the peak tourism season.
Domogan backed the construction of a parking facility at the Melvin Jones Grandstand and then again pushed for a car park to be built at the Ganza Restaurant area in 2017.
After the Ganza project was rejected, Domogan proposed the Orchidarium as a new location.
Groups like the Baguio Heritage Foundation, the Pine Cone Movement, the University of the Philippines - Baguio, and the Baguio We Want Forum have expressed opposition to the plans since 2015.
A public hearing held by the Baguio City council on April 11 at the City Hall attracted more than 300 individuals—some with proposals and recommendations, but many more condemning the project.
Raymundo Rovillos, UP Baguio Chancellor and an advocate of The Baguio We Want Forum, said that the main reason for their opposing the project is that the park's water table is so shallow that it could not handle a multi-level parking lot, which might collapse due to soil liquefaction. In addition, he said, pollution in the park would increase exponentially due to vehicle convergence.
On his weekly show Ugnayan, the mayor stressed that there was no mall or hotel in the master development plan and that a misinterpretation of published reports tainted the clear intentions of the local government in addressing the city's traffic problems. He also assured the public that the local government will scrutinize every plan to ensure that public safety and environmental protection will be observed, whatever development the city ends up undertaking within Burnham Park.
Even if the heritage conservation concerns are set aside, Boquiren said that building the car park in any of the areas Domogan has proposed is impractical and unsafe.
"It's really an area na aquifer, kaya talagang 'pag rainy season ay wet na wet ang area na 'yon, do'n ang tubig talaga pumunta e," Boquiren said. "Mababago mo ba 'yon?"
Burnham Park also sits on a fault line, and Boquiren reiterated the obvious fact that the terrain cannot be changed. "Hindi mo puwedeng sabihing 'yan ay stable na at puwedeng tayuan ng multi-story building," she said.
The conservationists have consistently opposed these proposals despite the local government unit's assurances that the construction will be an example of "green architecture."
"'Pag tinayuan mo 'yan ng mga building, building na ang mapupunta do'n at daanan ng sasakyan, hindi na mga taong puwedeng mamasyal sa buong area," Boquiren asserted.
Baguio's changing face
Baguio City and Burnham Park itself are settings of at least two of Mike De Leon's classic masterpieces, "Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising" and "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?", and the lush green area lends much beauty even to cheesy-yet-beloved movies like "Labs Kita, Okay Ka Lang?"
In 2014, the the City of Pines topped a list of Philippine cities with the most polluted air per the World Health Organization, much to the shock of many.
The study was questioned by some and while a follow up report has yet to be published, data shows that Baguio City is attracting more and more tourists. The number of expected travelers for Holy Week has doubled—from 250,000 to 500,000—since 2015.
Just a month prior to her resignation, former Tourism secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo confirmed that Baguio is being considered as another tourist destination that should be assessed for environmental damage, perhaps motivated by such incidents as the massive influx of tourists that prompted a cancellation of classes and resulted in a "carmaggedon."
Boquiren said that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority in response to her letters alerting them to the proposed car park in Baguio City have all reiterated Burnham Park's status "as an important cultural property."
As of current writing, nearly 15,000 have signed an online petition opposing the construction of the car park, with many people saying in the comments section that the city needs more green spaces.
Meanwhile, Boquiren and her fellow campaigners will remain vigilant. "Makikipag-usap sila kasi nag-complain kami. Otherwise, itutuloy nila 'yon," Boquiren said.
"The way we look at it, inuulit-ulit nila 'yong proposals to have that multi-layer parking right there at Burnham Park, which is the center of a city business district," she said.
"Maling-mali talaga. It's all for money and it's all for commercialization that goes against the use of Burnham Park as a park that's open [and] free for the relaxation of the city people and tourists to come around." — with a report by Darius Bajo/BM, GMA News