Operation Chamartín derailed

Madrid building restrictions seem to have put an end to 20-year-old scheme The plan was to put railway lines underground and extend road links in the north of the capital

An aerial image of the Chamartín station and railway lines that the urban development project wants to put underground.
An aerial image of the Chamartín station and railway lines that the urban development project wants to put underground.ÁLVARO GARCÍA (EL PAÍS)

The Madrid regional High Court has annulled an ambitious public-private partnership project to extend the capital's main Paseo de la Castellana thoroughfare, put the lines of the Chamartín railway station underground, and build and sell 17,000 homes to fund it all.

The courts sunk the plans by applying legislation passed in 2007 limiting new developments in the capital to four stories. It is the same legislation they used to foil a 2012 scheme to demolish soccer club Atlético de Madrid's Vicente Calderón stadium in the southwest of the capital and build apartments on the site, using the money from their sale to pay for work to convert the Peineta stadium into the team's new ground.

The plans to revitalize the area around Chamartín included the building of 20 tower blocks, each around 20 stories high. However, this legal obstacle could be overcome after the regional government amended the law in June. But the extension of the Castellana looks likely to remain on the drawing board. In exchange for permission to build the towers, property owners would construct five new metro stations and excavate a tunnel out to the nearby newly created residential district of Las Tablas. But the courts have decided that the owners cannot be obliged to cover the costs involved.

Over the last 20 years, successive regional and national governments of both political stripes have failed to reach agreement on how to implement Operation Chamartín. But in 2008, the Public Works Ministry under the then-Socialist government, the Popular Party-controlled regional government and Madrid City Hall, along with state rail company Renfe, a private equity group led by bank BBVA and the San José construction company came together to sign a deal to go ahead with the scheme.

The Supreme Court ruling exempts landowners from project costs

In March 2011, Madrid City Hall approved part of the plan. This would have freed up around 3.1 million square meters of land by putting Chamartin's rail lines underground. The three administrations planned to pump around 11 billion euros into the project, which would be paid for by the sale of the 17,000 homes. The project called for the Paseo de la Castellana to be extended 2.8 kilometers to connect it with the M-40 ring road and the creation of 53 hectares of parks, along with 81 hectares of public amenities, while Chamartín station itself would be enlarged to 32 tracks, allowing it to take high speed trains from Atocha station in the south of the city. Line 10 of the metro was to be extended by some 4.4 kilometers, with nine new stations, and links to the main roads north out of the city would be improved, with the plans including a tunnel to Las Tablas.

But the ruling by the Supreme Court, dated June 21, and leaked by the VozPopuli website, states that contrary to the regional government's zoning legislation, land owners cannot be forced to cover the cost of the infrastructure involved. Based on the Supreme Court's own rules - which will make it hard for any appeal to be brought before it - the magistrates have exempted land owners from the 207 million-euro cost of the metro line extension, as well as the 37.5-million-euro tunnel. The cost of these works will now have to be covered by the three tiers of government, even though the agreement with the property developers was set up so that money made from house sales would defray the costs. Madrid City Hall rezoned the area "to cover the exceptional economic costs of the infrastructure."

Regarding the four-story limit on new buildings, the regional government amended the law to protect the capital's heritage and skyline, exempting "land previously classified as urban before the 2007 law came into effect."

This change, implemented specifically to circumvent legal obstacles to Operation Chamartín, should have resolved the dispute between the courts and City Hall, which is still pending the Supreme Court's ruling on the scheme to build on the site of the Atlético Madrid soccer stadium.

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