Supreme Court sinks plan to build "mini-Vatican" in Madrid's historic quarter

City Hall had tried to tweak zoning laws to allow for massive religious complex

Demonstrators during a protest against the project.
Demonstrators during a protest against the project.Carlos Rosillo

The Supreme Court has killed a project by the archdiocese of Madrid to build large new headquarters in a historical area of the capital filled with landmark buildings.

Known informally as "the mini-Vatican," the construction would have gone up on land near the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, by the gardens of Las Vistillas in the shadow of Madrid's Royal Palace.

In a ruling made public last Friday, the court struck down a joint appeal by the city of Madrid - run by the conservative Popular Party (PP) - and the archdiocese against an earlier decision by the Madrid regional High Court, which had determined that the building project would violate historical heritage laws in an area that enjoys special landmark building protection.

The conflict goes all the way back to 1997, when the city, then under Mayor José María Álvarez del Manzano of the PP, and the archdiocese signed a land exchange deal. Under this agreement, the Church handed over some plots along the ledge overlooking the river, known as Cornisa del Manzanares.

Under the plan, the city was set to lose 15,000 square meters of green land

Eight years later, in 2005, Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón (also of the PP) signed another agreement with the archdiocese partly undoing that exchange.

The Church would now return some of the land in exchange for user rights over the Cornisa del Manzanares plot, where it would get permission to build a four-story headquarters taking up 14,000 square meters (with parking space for 200 cars), a three-story priests' residence and a 6,000-square-meter library. Meanwhile, the land given over to the city by the Church would get a sports center, an elementary school, a seniors' center and a homeless shelter.

Through this exchange, the city was set to lose 15,000 square meters of green space.

Local residents grouped together as the Association of Friends of La Cornisa-Las Vistillas appealed the agreement in the courts, and the Madrid regional High Court ruled in their favor. The judges declared the land deal illegal because the affected area is part of the city's historic zone, meaning that its transformation cannot exclusively follow land development criteria, but must also consider historical landmark protection issues.

What the city did then was simply tweak its zoning plan to make the project legal. But the court believes that it should have instead complied with existing state and regional historical heritage legislation. Because it did not do so, the zoning reform of October 2007 was struck down.

A year later another appeal by the city yielded the same result: the zoning reform was not legally sustainable, and the city did not sufficiently respect landmark protection laws.

Undaunted, the city and the archdiocese turned to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the neighborhood association on November 5, although that decision was not released until Friday of last week.

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