How Heritage Groups and Athletes Fought to Keep the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex Alive
Near Harrison Plaza is a 11-hectare sports complex that has been site of various historical, sporting, and even musical events. This is the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex (RMSC), one of the last remaining buildings that serve as a reminder of Manila's more opulent days.
Though a far cry from its original state, the RMSC still functions as a training ground for national athletes and venue for school sporting events. With its buildings created in the Art Deco style, a popular architectural trend in the ‘20s, one can’t help admiring its façades while at the same time feeling pity for its facilities which are in desperate need of upgrades.
This is probably why younger Manileños do not even think of visiting RMSC. Why would they when they can go to posh gyms or new sports clubs? This is also probably why when news about the sports complex being turned into a mall broke out, it made headlines but it did not make any noise.
Despite this, a handful of heritage groups and local athletes fought to preserve RMSC in the face of destruction.
RMSC: Beauty and Purpose
The RMSC stands on the site of the former Manila Carnival Grounds—known for crowning the Manila Carnival Queen, which in turn was the precursor of the Binibining Pilipinas pageant. The land was donated by the Vito Cruz family, and the buildings were designed by Juan Arellano, the same architect responsible for the Manila Metropolitan Theater. A lot of heritage enthusiasts point out that RMSC may be the single biggest sports facility done in the Art Deco style within the country and possibly the only one in the ASEAN region.
The sports complex was officially inaugurated in time for the 1934 Far Eastern Championship Games, the major sporting event in the region before the Asian Games. During the Philippine Commonwealth Era, RMSC was also used as a civic area where Manuel Quezon was declared a presidential candidate in the 1935 elections.
The RMSC had one of the first Olympic-sized swimming pools in the metro, as well as a track and a football stadium. The stadium could pack in as many as 80,000 people, and it was where The Beatles held their first and only concert in the Philippines, in 1966. On the other hand, its equally majestic baseball field was once graced by the iconic American player Babe Ruth.
The facility also has a tennis center, bowling center, badminton hall, boxing gym, gymnastics hall, and center for sports medicine.
Several buildings were destroyed during the Battle of Manila in World War II as it became one of the fighting sites between Japanese and American soldiers. It was reconstructed in 1953 and used as the venue for the 2nd Asian Games in 1954.
Baby boomers also fondly remember going to RMSC for school events and competitions. It wasn't surprising to see Maryknoll girls cheering on Ateneo football players during practice. It was a place to go and be seen, and the best part was it was a public property which meant everyone was welcome.
Parts of the complex were only renovated in 2011 but despite its condition, it still served as the training ground for notable Filipino sports icons such as Gabriel ‘Flash’ Elorde, Rolando Navarette, Lydia de Vega, and Eric Buhain for swimming.
Threat of Deconstruction
Years of irrelevance, mostly due to the public’s preference to go to newer and nearer sports clubs rather than travelling to Malate, made RMSC vulnerable to threats of demolition.
In November 2016, there were reports that the city government of Manila was forgoing a joint venture with the Razon group for P10 to P15 billion. The Razon group initially planned to preserve some parts of the complex, but they also intended to build a commercial center with malls, cinemas, and condominiums.
“The construction will start within this year. But the completion of the project will take years. That is why I need another term to finish the project and see its completion,” Mayor Joseph Estrada even said in an interview.
Heritage groups were quick to act. Ivan Man Dy, Founding Member of Art Deco Philippines and VP for Internal Affairs of Heritage Conservation Society wrote to Jeremy Barns, Director of the National Museum of the Philippines.
“Given its architectural significance, I believe there is sufficient basis for its gazetting as a National Cultural Treasure by your good office. Also, I believe there is a gap in the declaration of civic structures and spaces such as the RMSC and that such declaration would address this deficiency,” Man Dy wrote.
Heritage and sports groups also worked hand-in-hand to get their side of the story and rally people to their cause. A Change.org petition was started, and the page further stated the reasons why the RMSC was suddenly up for grabs:
“In 2013, Philippine Sports Commission has shown interests in selling RMSC to fund a new training center at Clark Field, Pampanga which will be the national sports center. Their first option was to sell the land to the Manila City Government."
“This will be okay if the city will keep the facilities, which are actually few of the, if not the, best facilities in the country. RMSC could be the city's and/or Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila's and Unibersidad De Manila's training center. However, [on] November 23, news got out that the city government will turn Rizal Coliseum into a mall, with the rest of the complex being in danger to be turned in a mixed-development.”
The petition also outlined the last remaining green spaces in the metro, the RMSC being one of them. In fact, the Heritage Conservation Society supports this idea, in their statement dated the same year.
“Historically, the Harrison District itself was intended as a park to manage flooding in Malate while creating a civic space to anchor a pleasant and integrated community. Forgetting the historical function of an area leads precisely to the problems we see in that area today,” it stated.
“Manila needs open and green spaces, not more concrete slabs, because climate experts warn that Metro Manila is now a heat island because of limited green and open spaces,” the group added.
The group acknowledged that the City of Manila should pursue a path of redevelopment for the city, but it should also keep in mind that there are other public values it must protect and nurture.
“A healthy environment and the preservation of our culture and history must go hand in hand with economic development,” they said.
Another argument they presented was that Manila residents deserve affordable sports facilities and public open spaces, even as a new national sports complex will be built in Clark.
“The Rizal Memorial should remain as a sports complex, and should be dedicated to the people of Manila,” the group said.
It wasn’t long before notable personalities stepped in to give their thoughts about the proposed plans for RMSC.
One of these was former Olympian Monsour del Rosario, who is now a congressman. According to del Rosario, the Philippine Olympians Association, as well as his colleagues from Congress, are against the demolition of the complex. “Lahat silang mga Olympians, ayaw nilang mawala ang Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. I’m going to take steps geared towards how we will preserve and keep our oldest coliseum in Asia. As an athlete, (the move to save the Rizal sports complex) is already for our children and our grandchildren,” del Rosario said.
With the momentum and growing public support on their side, these heritage and athletes groups were pleasantly surprised to receive reports that the city government has changed its tune.
City of Manila Media Relations Officer Bambi Purisima told news outlets that there were no proposals to develop RMSC.
“Nothing concrete at the moment. Tsismis pa lang po iyan. Ni walang resolution or ordinance for that matter na galing sa Manila City Council. Malabo pa po 'yan (They are only rumors. There’s not even a resolution or ordinance coming from the Manila City Council. The demolition is unlikely to happen)" Purisima said.
However, a few months later, Estrada was once again reported saying that he was still hopeful for the sale.
“Wala nang gumagamit. Wala nang kinikita. Luma na lahat. Paano pa mapapakinabangan ng city? Wala na, antiquated na ang Rizal (No one uses it anymore. It doesn’t earn. Everything is old. How can it still be usable to the city? Nothing. It’s antiquated)” he was quoted.
The groups retaliated by calling out the city government. Instead of focusing on selling properties, they should clean the surrounding areas and make it safe so that people would actually be enticed to go to RMSC and use its facilities.
They doubled their efforts and found that the only way to save RMSC is to have it declared as a national historical landmark.
On April 2017, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines finally granted the RMSC this much-deserved status. In Resolution 5, Series of 2017, its board members recognized the contribution of the RMSC in the development of sports in the Philippines. At the same time, a panel of experts from the National Museum also recognized the RMSC as an important cultural property.
“Rest assured of our commitment to protect, preserve and conserve these historical structures considered as cultural heritage, which will serve as inspiration and pride of today’s Filipino youth and the future generation,” they wrote.
Due to these developments, the sale of the property was halted and the Razon group dropped its bid to buy the property. The Philippine Sports Commission is also drawing up plans to rehabilitate the complex after much publicity. They said that around P2 billion would be needed to have the RMSC ready in time for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.
For Heritage Conservation Society President Atty. Mark Evidente, the battle isn’t over yet. They may have saved the RMSC but other sites are still in danger.
“The engagement may need to be sustained to ensure that sites are properly conserved,” he said.
Saving the RMSC was also a learning experience for him and his team. One lesson learned was that there may need to be public engagement, with stakeholders from other heritage advocates to the affected communities, as well as media, especially when confronting powerful interests.
“Build alliances with other people in and of good faith. Remember it’s not about you or me, but it’s about what heritage we can save for future generations.”