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Mexico City road project pits rich against richer

Street protests come to wealthy suburbs, along with goons and allegations of dirty tricks.

February 25, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — Call it urban warfare for the rich and richer.

Mexico City's elite is up in arms over plans to build roadway tunnels and overpasses through lovely suburban neighborhoods, a project that critics say would push the city's destructive sprawl into forests and a vital aquifer when fresh air and water are already scarce.

Potential beneficiaries of the project are inhabitants of an even wealthier suburb, not to mention the politician who would get a boost from the high-profile works.

It's as if Beverly Hills were taking on Bel-Air, and the (cashmere) gloves have come off.

Allegations fly of corruption and dirty tricks. Shock troops! Hidden agendas and clandestine excavations! Life and death -- of trees, at least.

At stake is whether citizens -- well-heeled ones, in this case -- can rise up, make their voices heard and influence the way their neighborhoods are shaped. It's basic civic activism, common in much of the world. But in this chaotic, sprawling megalopolis, "urban planning" is pretty much an oxymoron.

"The whole country is watching what happens here," ringleader Eduardo Farah said with a touch of hyperbole. "If we can defeat the big developers, then smaller groups might be encouraged."

Graceful thoroughfares

Opponents of the project are residents of Polanco and Las Lomas, neighborhoods that rise on the western slope of Mexico City, with wide, tree-lined streets, luxury apartments and mansions behind tall walls. In a battle reminiscent of the South Pasadena fight against the 710 Freeway extension, they accuse local official Gabriela Cuevas of pushing through plans that they say would ruin Reforma and Las Palmas boulevards, graceful thoroughfares that symbolize upscale Mexico.

Hundreds of palm, cedar, ash and jacaranda trees -- some of which are protected species here -- have been or will be cut down and the character of the area badly altered, the neighbors contend. After officials recently uprooted trees in the middle of the night, the neighbors obtained from the city a temporary restraining order against further construction. Then they held a memorial picnic on the site of the felled trees, brandishing "Wanted" posters with Cuevas' picture.

"It would be like destroying the medians on the Champs-Elysees," said Daniel Gershenson Shapiro, a consumer activist and one of the opponents.

Not true, Cuevas says. She dismisses the criticisms as the harping of a small group of politically motivated malcontents. The benefit of the project -- the easing of a monstrous traffic jam -- far outweighs any downsides, she says.

As head of a delegacion, or borough, she is roughly equivalent to a Los Angeles County supervisor. Cuevas, 29, with long red hair and an affinity for TV cameras, is a striking and, according to admirers and critics alike, very ambitious politician.

She is also a member of the center-right National Action Party, the political affiliation of the national government. That puts her at odds with the mayor's office, where the left rules.

Cuevas contends that most of the opponents to the roadwork are tied to the left -- a curious claim, given that the right tends to dominate in these affluent suburbs and many of the opponents voted for her (a decision they now say they regret).

Cuevas says damage from the construction is being exaggerated, and she has promised to plant more trees than she tears down (opponents are skeptical). In an interview, she scrolled through screen after screen on her BlackBerry to show e-mails of residents she said support her.

The stated purpose of the project is to ease traffic from central Mexico City through Las Lomas, and it ends 10 miles west in Santa Fe, a high-tech suburb and headquarters to scores of multinational firms. More than 80,000 people live or work in Santa Fe, which has the highest per capita income in this capital of 20 million.

"No one wants to live in traffic," said Cuevas, who cited a study that she said shows that motorists lose six days a year waiting at one traffic light where Reforma and Las Palmas meet.

And no one disputes that traffic is one of Mexico City's most debilitating problems. It's the solution that is controversial; the anti-roadway crowd says Mexico needs to catch up with the rest of the world in promoting carpooling and building better public transportation instead of more highways -- despite the fact that they live in neighborhoods adorned with multiple SUVs in the driveways.

As it happens, the first phase of the road adjustments advocated by Cuevas would be built in a corner of Polanco where Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, one of the richest men in the world, is erecting tens of thousands of apartments and offices. Some critics suspect that an underpass there is designed, at least in part, to give Slim an additional selling point for his project: easier access to Santa Fe.

Leather coats and scarves

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