The Messy Saga of the Mile Long-Sunvar Complex

If there is one piece of real estate in the metropolis that can be considered the most controversial of all, at least controversial enough to merit national attention, it would be that stretch of land from Dela Rosa Street up to Arnaiz Avenue (the former Pasay Road) in Makati, known as the Mile Long-Sunvar complex.

It is a controversy that had all the elements of a thrilling drama: a lengthy litigation, a struggle between government and a prominent business clan who also happens to own the country’s leading newspaper, and a dogged determination of a president who just hates this family’s guts. But for us to understand the controversy, it is important to learn how the properties and the controversy that came with them, began in the first place.

Origins

The saga began in 1978 when a parcel of government-owned land (owned by the National Power Corporation to be specific) beside the creek along Amorsolo Street in Makati was leased to an entity known as Technology Resource Center Foundation Incorporated (TRCFI) for a period of 25 years. TRCFI, in turn, leased the land in 1980 to Sunvar Realty Development Corporation, a property firm owned by the Rufinos and, through marriage, the Prietos. While Sunvar is not quite a well-known name to many when it comes to in property development, they’ve actually got a track record. In fact, Sunvar helped develop what is now Corinthian Gardens, one of the most prominent upper class villages in Quezon City.

Development

So Sunvar quickly began developing the creekside property as a row of commercial buildings were built. From the corner of Arnaiz Avenue and Amorsolo, the first building one can see in the contested property is the Sunvar Building, built in 1982 to serve as the office of Sunvar Realty. At one time, there was also a branch of Villman Computers in the building, as well as a branch of Alviar Medical Laboratories, which offers very affordable medical laboratory tests even for ECG and 2D Echo.

Across Sunvar is the McDonald’s Makati Cinema Square branch, one of the oldest McDonald’s branches in Makati. Thus, it has become a landmark of sorts in this part of the city and has been a favorite hangout among those working and living in the fringes of the business district.

Speaking of food, another favorite hangout in the area is the Creekside Building, located a few blocks away at the corner of Amorsolo and Rufino Streets. There is a hotel and a number of mostly Japanese bars and restaurants, a part of the greater Japantown in Makati which includes Little Tokyo.

The businesses in the complex were mainly situated in the complex’s two buildings: The Gallery Building  (built 1982) across McDonald’s and Mile Long (built 1983) across Creekside at the corner of Rufino. But other than being business hubs, Mile Long and The Gallery also served as creative hubs. For one, Mile Long was home to one of the earliest coworking spaces in the metropolis, the O2 Space. More importantly, both Mile Long and The Gallery were home to a number of advertising sound and production studios such as SounDesign and Noisy Neighbors at Mile Long and Hit Productions and Loud Box at the Gallery. Within the confines of these studios, many radio, TV, and online advertisements, as well as some films, were being prepared before they are released.

 

The old O2 Space at Mile Long (circa 2015)

A few steps from Mile Long before approaching Dela Rosa Street is the TIU Theater. This one is a fairly recent development, built in 1994 originally as Louie’s THX, then changed its name to Premiere THX. The choice of building a standalone movie theater in this part of the city might have been a puzzling choice but a look at the Rufino family history would have helped shed some light. You see, long before they went into property development, the Rufinos were in the movie theater business. During the time when Manila was the haven for entertainment, the Rufinos owned a number of movie theaters in the city such as Capitol Theater in Escolta and the Rizal Avenue movie theaters State, Avenue, and Ever. So the Louie’s/Premiere THX venture was a return to their roots as far as the Rufinos were concerned while trying to make a mark in a landscape that was already changing by introducing a new technology in the movie experience: THX sound. Hence the THX name. Unfortunately, the mall-based movie theaters caught up and zoomed past ahead in the process. At the same time, its location became a disadvantage for the struggling movie theater so it eventually ceased operations and remained closed until a Japanese director named Toshihiko Uriu took control and reopened it in 2014 as TIU Theater, a performing arts theater dedicated to Philippine culture and the arts.

Legal troubles

By 2002, the 25-year lease was nearing its end. At the time, the TRCFI was already dissolved; succeeding it was the Philippine Development Alternatives Foundation (PDAF). So the government informed PDAF that it was no longer renewing the lease, which PDAF relayed to Sunvar. Sunvar, however, did not vacate the complex. This resulted in a case filed against Sunvar by the government in 2009.

After years in litigation, a decision was reached ion 2015. The verdict was a blow to Sunvar; the court ordered it to vacate the Mile Long-Sunvar complex and pay back rentals amounting to P478.2 million. In addition, they would have to pay the government a monthly rental of P3.2 million from June 2015 until they vacate the property. Sunvar filed an appeal shortly afterward which resulted in a temporary restraining order in favor of Sunvar. However, the Court of Appeals overturned that TRO, saying that the court that issued the TRO had no jurisdiction on the case.

Seen in front of Creekside Hotel

To make matters more “complicated” for Sunvar, there was also President Rodrigo Duterte who have been hammering on Sunvar for not complying with the court’s decision and for not paying the proper taxes to the government.  The matter of Sunvar’s owners owning the Philippine Daily Inquirer was also brought up as President Duterte accused the Rufino-Prieto family of using Inquirer to evade their obligations to the government.

A sudden end

By August 2017, the signs were pointing to Sunvar’s defeat. The Court of Appeals dealt it a blow the month before when it ruled that the lower court had no right to hear the injunction case Sunvar filed. This gave the government a free hand in finally serving an eviction notice to Sunvar and wasted little time at that.

Caught in the middle of it all were the tenants who were already well established in the Mile Long-Sunvar Complex who had no choice but to vacate the premises because of the court ruling. While some saw it was inevitable to happen, many of the tenants were shocked and saddened by the swift turn of events. But in the end, there was nothing else they can do. On August 16, the tenants vacated the complex, many of them for the last time.

Uncertain future

The foreclosure of the Mile Long-Sunvar complex not only left the area as a ghost town but also left plans and projects in the area in limbo, such as the planned apartment complex being built in the Mile Long compound at the corner of Amorsolo and Dela Rosa Streets.

Now that the complex is under government property once more, what will be the next move? Apparently, the plans are to sell the property as a way to raise revenue for the government. At the moment, there is no indication yet of possible interested buyers nor has there been any disclosures made for an auction or even a period for interested parties to put their bids forward.

The important question though is: it possible for at least some of them to reopen in their old locations? There is the possibility, but I suppose they would adapt a “wait and see” attitude and see what happens next. There is the option for the government to allow them to return and resume operations in the area. The other would be for them to deal with the new owner who hopefully will let them return. But as mentioned earlier, there is no indication as to when the sale will take place so that will take some time.

A personal postscript

The Mile Long-Sunvar complex has been a place close to my heart. I’ve tried out being a voice talent at Hit Productions in The Gallery and SounDesign in Mile Long, had my first exposure to coworking at O2 in Mile Long, and went through affordable ECG/2DED exams at Alviar Medical in Sunvar Bldg. Thus when the news broke out, I was sad that they had to suffer the most. For these and the other businesses in the complex, I cannot imagine what and how it felt like.

Sure, the government has every right to to pursue the Mile Long properties. But maybe there could have been a better way in addressing this matter, one that could not have put these businesses in the situation they are in now.

But we are here in this situation. The best we can do is hope for the best with regards to the outcome of this matter for everyone involved.

 

Acknowledgements to Manila Times, Rappler, Sunvar Realty, adobo Magazine, and TIU Theater

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