A new dock for hotel ships in Gaia could disrupt the city’s relationship with the river

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The environmental impact assessment of a terminal project costing over 50 million euros, two storeys high and to be built over the river is the subject of a public consultation until June 14.

A new dock for hotel ships in Gaia could disrupt the city's relationship with the river

There is a consensus on the need to remove the hotel ships from the overcrowded quayside in the center of Gaia, where they park, unload tourists and handle their logistics. The problem lies in the location chosen by the Administração dos Portos do Douro, Leixões e de Viana do Castelo (APDL) to install the new terminal, whose Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the subject of a public consultation on the Participa portal until June 14.

The defined point is Cais do Cavaco, a small cove on the left bank of the Douro, just before the Arrábida bridge, four kilometers from the river mouth, where the two-storey building, 14 meters above the waterline, will be constructed.

Cais do Cavaco
Cais do Cavaco

The first reaction of opposition came from the residents of a luxury housing estate resulting from the redevelopment of the former alcohol distillery building on the edge of Cais do Cavaco. They fear that the hustle and bustle of tourists will replace the tranquility of this riverside strip, that an obstacle will appear to the unobstructed view of the river that they enjoy today, and that this will lead to the devaluation of their properties. But for geographer José Alberto Rio Fernandes and architect and researcher João Pedro Tenreiro, the main potential damage concerns the city’s relationship with the Douro River.

The new terminal, estimated by APDL to cost over 50 million euros, will be built over the river, allowing four hotel ships to dock there. It will also have the capacity to hold another ship of the same size and another area reserved for pleasure boats. The problem lies not in the project, which bears the signature of Álvaro Siza Vieira, say the geographer and architect, but in the chosen location.

“It’s a construction that involves damming up a large part of the river and transforming the view from the Gaia waterfront towards Porto,” explains José Pedro Tenreiro. “A discontinuity is created and this area becomes a parking lot for boats which, even though they are river boats, are already large,” he notes, concluding that there is an impact on the landscape and on the city’s relationship with the river.

At a time when people are talking about respecting nature, renaturating landscapes and rehabilitating “clogged” waterways, says Rio Fernandes, “covering the river with buildings is totally out of place”. The construction, which will be clad in donkey bricks and measure 180 metres long by 27 metres wide, will also be accompanied by a quay 343 metres long by 10 metres wide. To build in this location “is to hide the river from people. It can’t be the APDL that appropriates what belongs to everyone,” he stresses.

What are the alternatives?

In November 2022, APDL announced in a press release that the location had been chosen, with the agreement of Vila Nova de Gaia town council. “In the last stretch of the Douro, the location with the best navigation conditions was considered”, APDL’s press office responds today, justifying the option by the “hydrodynamic modeling studies developed, reconciling good conditions for ship maneuvering and minimizing disruptions to the river flow”.

“The municipality of Gaia is currently analyzing the project sent by APDL regarding the Cais do Cavaco project,” the municipality’s communications office told PÚBLICO, adding that the choice of this location was a proposal by APDL. The same source also indicated that the council chaired by Eduardo Vítor Rodrigues (PS) is following “the whole process”.

The port authority explains that the new terminal “aims to offer better conditions” for embarking and disembarking passengers from hotel ships, and asserts that “the development of the project was strongly conditioned by the search for a minimalist solution in terms of land occupation.

Rio Fernandes, professor at the University of Porto, argues that there would be other solutions upstream, such as in Oliveira do Douro, Valbom or Avintes, where tourists could get on and off the boats and where the boats could be parked. As these are less urbanized areas, the activity would have less impact there. “It may not be good management for business, but it would be good management for the land,” he adds.

José Pedro Tenreiro claims that Cais do Cavaco is “the worst area” for the terminal. Like Rio Fernandes, he advocated a solution further east, but felt that even the extension of the Afurada port area, downstream of the Arrábida bridge, would be preferable. The idea was to take advantage of another discontinuity in public access to the waterfront that already exists due to support services for boats and fishermen, he says.

Arrábida bridge
Arrábida bridge

The architect believes that, in the case of Afurada, an urban quality solution has not been found, and fears that the same will be true of Cais do Cavaco. What’s more, a new point will be created away from the Douro. “I don’t see any favorable argument for building over the river. All the more so in a deeply urban area”, insists Rio Fernandes.

Increased traffic

For the time being, according to APDL, it is not yet possible to say when construction will start on the terminal, which will feature a bar and restaurant, as well as administrative space. However, the AIA indicates that the work is expected to take two years, during which time a road will also be opened to facilitate the transit of buses that will supply the tourist boats, as well as trucks that will bring fuel to the boats or trucks that will collect sanitary water.

It is during these two years of construction that the impact on the environment will be greatest, according to the document. Nevertheless, according to the assessment, the “negative impacts” – linked to construction activity, the movement of heavy machinery, intense noise and deterioration in air quality – are of “limited significance for most environmental factors”.

On the positive side, it is mentioned that the improved conditions compared to the current ones, closer to the historic center, will enable the creation of “other support services that don’t exist on the Quai de Gaia” and “create new jobs”. As well as improving “safety and convenience” for tourists, of course.

At a cost of over 50 million euros, APDL believes that “it only makes sense to develop [this project] if we are able to ensure the amortization of the investment”. The contract has “the characteristics of a private capital investment”, the same entity states, without specifying the source. “If there are no interested developers, APDL can take over the investment”, it adds.

When the hotel boats change quay, the current quay in the historic center of Gaia will not be empty. The aim is to articulate activity between the two areas, explains the town hall press office, “by maintaining a small berthing area at the Gaia pier, where the rabelo boats, for example, are located, and removing only the larger tourist boats”.

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