Residents of a working-class district near the port battle to block British plan to create a marina for the mega-rich.
Giles Tremlett in Barcelona
The Port Vell in Barcelona’s traditional fishermen’s neighbourhood is at the centre of plans by the Mayfair-based Salamanca Group, a private investment fund, to bring the mega-rich to the heart of the city
The world's largest private yacht looms over the old port of Barcelona – its six-deck, 163m profile offering proof of the love of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for a city he will visit again this week as his football team, Chelsea, tries to secure a place in the Champions League finals.
But the superyacht, equipped with its own mini-submarine and anti-paparazzi shield, is a symbol of what neighbours in the traditional fishermen's neighbourhood of La Barceloneta fear will bring about the demise of one of the few city centre barrios to have maintained its traditional working-class character. Old Barcelona is under threat. A British private investment fund has taken control of much of the port area and has asked for an extended licence so that it can turn the Marina Port Vell into the Mediterranean's prime home for superyachts. Sources close to the group said it wanted the licence to run until 2036.
The Mayfair-based Salamanca Group intends to make the marina home to yachts up to 180 metres long, bringing the planet's growing club of mega-rich to a marina that it says "dominates the heart of Barcelona". But Barceloneta residents say the boats will dwarf the neighbourhood's famously narrow, four- or five-storey blocks of flats, where working-class families live in tiny homes and colourful outdoor washing lines leave the neighbourhood's laundry on public display.
"I've lived here all my life and the barrio has a special identity, precisely because so many working-class people have always lived here," said 68-year-old pensioner Antonio García, of the L'Ostia neighbourhood group. "But this will price us out, turning the port into a place only for the very rich and changing things for ever."
Neighbours fear that a huge wall may go up around part of the port to ensure the privacy of a handful of wealthy people, creating a fortress-like billionaires' ghetto on their doorstep. Protesters have already taken to Barceloneta's narrow streets, demanding that speculators be kept away from an area renowned for its cheap seafood restaurants and proximity to Barcelona's colourful urban beach.
"This will make it even more touristy and will see us expelled from our own barrio. We want it as it has always been, a real community of working-class people with roots right here," said García.
Most of Barcelona's fishing fleet disappeared years ago, but the area also had factories and most people worked in manufacturing. Barceloneta was also a centre of popular culture, with the city's own version of the rumba dance emerging here. The rundown area was partially redeveloped, along with the old port, for the 1992 Olympics, but it survived the gentrification of other parts of the old town. "The flats here are too small for the wealthier people from around Europe who have moved into other parts of the city," explained García. "That has saved us so far, but now people are buying them up to rent out as holiday apartments."
Salamanca took over the marina in 2010. The company is run by founder Martin Bellamy, a former army officer. Last year it claimed that work on the marina would be completed this autumn. But a city hall spokeswoman said that only after Salamanca had received an extended licence from the Spanish government would Barcelona's authorities be able to review the project and decide whether to hand out its own permits. "This will have a landscape impact on Barcelona and so will have to be studied closely," said Rosa Díaz. "The city hall approves in principle of a large investment that might generate jobs and bring wealth, but it is not going to allow them to do whatever they like. And, of course, it will consult the neighbours."
Salamanca's Barcelona outpost declined to give figures for the amount of money it wants to invest. Nor would it respond publicly to the concerns of people in La Barceloneta.
Locals say some smaller boat owners, including those who live on their boats, are already being told they must leave the marina. A source close to Salamanca said this was because repair work had already started. Boat owners were being offered berths at cut-rate prices in nearby marinas, as well as a place on the waiting list to get back once work was finished.
Among possible solutions for multi-millionaires seeking privacy were temporary screens covering a glass or metal fence around part of the marina.
The huge project comes as Barcelona seeks to shed its reputation for cheap, drunken, stag-party tourism, with a recent law cracking down on street prostitutes in places such as the Las Ramblas boulevard.
Abramovich is rumoured to be a shareholder in a Barcelona refit and repair yard, MB92, that lies beside the marina and also plans to expand its facilities for superyachts.
The Marina Port Vell is not the only modernisation project in town. Barcelona is also competing with Madrid for the Eurovegas complex, a vast collection of hotels, casinos and conference centres that the Las Vegas-based gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson wants to build in Spain.