ARCHITECTURE

"I don't have a guilty conscience"

Ubaldo Gómiz is the architect of Almería's stalled El Algarrobico hotel project

The workers quickly dropped their tools thinking they would soon be heading back home. It was the morning of February 23, 2006, and several members of the local police from the nearby town of Carboneras in Almería province had shown up at the hotel that the developer Azata del Sol had been building over El Algarrobico beach, in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar natural park, since 2003 in order to uphold a court ruling to stop construction work.

Six years later, no one has been back to touch this ghost building. From its eerie, windowless corridors you can hear the sound of the sea -- an ambitious tourist project in a privileged enclave had been left foundering as the result of a legal battle with ecologists.

The El Algarrobico hotel complex had all the necessary permits - however, erecting it was also going to mean getting rid of a mountain in the middle of the protected Cabo de Gata-Níjar park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, just 28 meters from the shoreline.

In over two years, the building works had managed to construct 94 percent of the structure of this 20-level, 400-room hotel without anyone so much as batting an eyelid.

It might take another six years or it might never be resolved"

The stoppage "left us speechless, because at all times we had a clear conscience that we were acting in accordance with the law," says the architect of the hotel, Ubaldo Gómiz.

"They gave us a building permit and the project got the green light from the Environment Ministry, the coastal authority and the regional environment department. It must be the cleanest administrative ruling in Spain because they went through it with a fine-toothed comb it on the orders of the ex-minister," he says, referring to Cristina Narbona, environment minister from 2004 to 2008 under the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Environmental groups had objected to the building of the hotel and once their complaint had been admitted and an Almería judge had opened proceedings -- which culminated in the preventive stoppage of construction work as the municipal permit granted by the local government was revised -- Narbona said the hotel would be a government priority.

"It might take another six years or it might never be resolved," sighs Gómiz, who nevertheless points out that he is complying with the court ruling.

I feel very proud of what I have designed here. It was difficult to do"

"This is very specific kind of case and the magistrates need to be trained in it. They are normally based on the expert testimonies and, many times, they get muddled up. I imagine they have been overwhelmed by so much data. It is very difficult for someone to understand the complexity of this case," he says.

Tens of rulings on the complex have been issued, all of them aimed at demolishing the hotel. The most significant of those have been in the last 12 months. In March of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that at around 80 meters from the sea it encroaches upon the public right-of-way protected area which encompasses the first 100 meters from the shore, as established in the 1988 Coast Law. In other words, at least part of the structure has been erected on land in the public domain and is thus illegal.

Environmentalist groups, including Greenpeace Spain, said the ruling paved the way for the hotel to be demolished. However, disputes at national and regional government level over who should foot the bill for the demolition means the hotel remains standing, its future uncertain.

The former Socialist government had signed an agreement with the party's Andalusian bloc to demolish the complex in the run-up to last November's general election. However, the new Popular Party government, which swept to power in a landslide victory, now wants to avoid coughing up to reduce the hotel to rubble.

The Andalusia High Court is forcing the government to return the site to the "green land" category that had protected it prior to 1994. It remains to be seen if the court revokes the building permit that allowed a hotel that some have described as an "aberration" to be constructed.

"It does not affect me," says Gómiz. "I feel very proud of what I have designed here. I have done thousands of projects over my 30-year career. The hotel is very good and it has been very difficult to design it where it is."

He only sees one "but." "The local government insisted that it was white when I designed it in ochre tones so it was in harmony with the environment."

Despite everything he has been through and the rest that is still to come, Gómiz says he would do it all again if he had the chance. "Of course I would. I don't have a guilty conscience. I feel proud of the work. As an architect, I think it is very good and I have received congratulations from colleagues."

More serious to him is the "judicial uncertainty" generated by the proceedings and which has, what's more, "frightened away investment."

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