Marcos Vieira had a front-row seat for the biggest piece of Rio de Janeiro’s pre-Olympic facelift: razing the elevated highway that ran past his office. He now has a clear view of the cruise ships pulling into port.

In a few years, he will see office buildings and museums, bike trails and pedestrians. So far so good — “you see a fantastic aesthetic advance,” says Vieira, vice president of the Portela samba school and a military policeman.

The road’s removal is central to Mayor Eduardo Paes’s 8.2- billion-reais ($2.9 billion) bid to emulate cities such as Boston and Barcelona by renovating seedy waterfronts. He faces a tight deadline — the 2016 games — for tunnels to relieve gridlock. That’s not his only challenge: Rio’s oil-dependent economy is slowing, with state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA mired in a corruption scandal, and it remains to be shown whether the new downtown will attract residents or just commercial tenants.

“A city without a downtown, without a center, is a city without a soul,” Paes, 45, said in an interview. “Where people don’t live, they don’t look, they don’t take care, they don’t push politicians, they don’t make pressure, everything gets bad. If you look at downtown Rio, there’s nobody there.”

With its crumbling colonial facades, hulking warehouses and tatty storefronts, Rio’s five-square-kilometer port area has a long way to go before it’s worthy of the name Porto Maravilha — meaning marvelous. After nightfall, the serpentine streets hemmed in between hills and Guanabara Bay are sparsely lit and deserted.

Paes’s Ambition

Paes’s plan is nothing if not ambitious, beginning with demolition of the three-mile-long elevated highway, clearing the way for a pedestrian walkway. The road, known as the Perimetral, was so critical to traffic flows that when he tore it down last year, “people wanted to shoot me in the streets,” Paes said.

Traffic will be redirected through two tunnels as trams roll beside 17 kilometers (10 miles) of bike paths. Sidewalks and roads will be rebuilt as new water, electricity, sewage and drainage networks are installed through 2020. The area also will be wired with fiber optics, according to the Porto Novo consortium, which includes builders Odebrecht SA and OAS SA and will manage the area through 2025.

The promise of such infrastructure has lured 32 commercial projects, including Trump Towers Rio, which will have two 38- story office buildings at first and eventually five. Such developments footed most of the bill for Paes’s plan: The city auctioned off the right to build above a certain height. Companies that have moved into the area or plan to include Nissan Motor Co., L’Oreal SA, retailer Lojas Americanas SA and oilfield services provider Subsea 7 SA.

Better Than Boston?

The two-term mayor says the effort is financed almost entirely by private money, unlike Boston’s $14.5 billion “Big Dig,” which replaced an aging elevated highway with tunnels and new roads and was the most expensive U.S. highway project on record.

“If you look at the tearing down of the viaducts in Boston, it took much more time than what we’re doing here and they spent much more public money,” Paes said.

Whether such development will lure more residents is another matter. The city’s goal is to triple Porto Maravilha’s population to 100,000 in 10 years. Thus far, only one private residential endeavor is under way, with 1,300 units, according to Cdurp, the city agency managing Porto Maravilha.

Critics question the focus on commercial development at the expense of building neighborhoods.

‘Just Buildings’

“The problem is they’re building a city without a city,” said Ephim Schluger, a Rio native and former urban specialist for the World Bank. “These buildings will not have the life of a city. They’re just buildings and between them, nothing.”

The concern now is multiplying residential projects for this “new beginning,” according to Cdurp Chief Executive Officer Alberto Gomes Silva. To that end, the city passed a law last year to offer incentives for such developments in the area, he said.

Local headwinds include Petrobras, one of Rio’s economic mainstays, which is cutting investment plans amid the scandal and lower oil prices. The company last December banned 23 firms — including the three that make up Porto Novo — from bidding on new contracts because of alleged participation in the kickback scheme.

For now, there’s nothing like a deadline to get work done.

One of the two tunnels — called “Rio 450” after the age of the city — will be completed in March. The other will be finished in the first half of 2016, stretching three kilometers to emerge in front of Samba City — the ring of warehouses at Porto Maravilha’s center, where samba schools including Vieira’s Portela manufacture floats for Carnival.

Rio 450

Paes is a Portela fanatic, and last year the school picked a Carnival theme close to his heart: the port. This year it spent at least 10 million reais, with the theme of Rio’s 450th anniversary, according to Vieira.

“If you look at Rio now, at least we’re looking toward the future,” Paes said. “The discussion in Rio was about what governments were not doing. Now people are complaining about things that we are doing. So I love that. I love when people say, ‘Oh, you can’t blow up the Perimetral!’”

This article was written by David Biller from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Photo Credit: Central Rio De Janeiro. Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr