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A City Engulfed in Megaprojects

Fatal Stampede at a Development in Phnom Penh Illuminates Pitfalls of Cambodia’s Building Boom

Cambodian demonstrators protest arrests made amid a land dispute.
Rights advocates say planning failures pose a problem for the country.Will Baxter for The Wall Street Journal

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—The deadly stampede in Cambodia’s capital last
week is drawing new attention to problems arising from the city’s
dramatic but pell-mell growth.

A real-estate and economic boom is transforming Phnom Penh from one
of the least developed major cities in Asia—it began seeing its first
skyscrapers over the past several years—into the unlikely site for
plans to build Asia’s tallest building. Prime Minster Hun Sen said in
September that the 1,820-foot skyscraper, if completed, would trail
Dubai’s 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa, the tallest in the world, but surpass
Taiwan’s 1,667-foot Taipei 101, currently Asia’s tallest.
Track Phnom Penh’s satellite city projects.

Although
some residents still doubt the tower will be built, developers have
started work on other megaprojects, including four satellite cities
that could involve billions of dollars in investment. They are also
working on plans for a new stock exchange, a downtown marina and new
international hotels.

The construction is coming at a time when growth is already
outstripping Phnom Penh’s ability to provide basic services such as
roads and water, repeating a pattern seen in metropolises such as
Bangkok and Jakarta that underwent dramatic—and
problematic—transformations when they boomed in the 1970s, ’80s and
’90s.
Traffic is overwhelming broad avenues laid out under French colonial
rule. Human-rights groups say developers are forcing thousands of
residents off land in the central city with minimal compensation, and
failing to conduct adequate environmental and traffic-impact studies in
a rush to cash in.
“It is well known that since 1993, there has been no global urban
planning, nor any proper study related to new real-estate zones in
connection with sanitary feasibility, urban infrastructure, public
transportation” or other key services in Phnom Penh, says Pung Chhiv
Kek, president of Licadho, a local human-rights organization that has
tracked disputes over land developments and displaced families there.
Developers “just do whatever they want,” says Ching Chhom Mony, dean
of architecture and urbanism at Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine
Arts in Phnom Penh. “Our city development is like a mistake now,” he
says.
Government officials dispute that assessment. Although Phnom Penh’s
growth has been “overwhelming” in recent years, much of the new
development “can benefit Cambodia a lot,” says Chhay Rithisen, a
director-general at the department of urbanization at Cambodia’s
Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. He said
the government has a master plan for the city through 2020 and that
some of the new developments, especially the satellite cities, will
help ease congestion with new roads and other infrastructure.
Phnom Penh is better off in many ways than the megacities of India
and China, with a metropolitan-area population of only about two
million residents. The major new property investments create
construction jobs and draw foreign cash into an economy that was
starved of outside investment while Asia’s other cities grew.
Still, some planners including Mr. Ching Chhom Mony and human-rights
advocates say planning failures pose a serious problem for Cambodia—and
also played a role in last week’s disaster, in which an estimated 350
people were trampled to death as they crossed a bridge connecting
downtown Phnom Penh to a river island where a series of concerts were
being held.
The island is central to one of Phnom Penh’s gleaming new
developments, with a new exhibition center, homes priced from $250,000
to $1.5 million, a waterfront promenade, and a hall for ice sculptures.
The area, known as Diamond Island, is also expected to include the new
megatower, a hospital and a shopping mall.
Such developments come at a time when Phnom Penh is still dominated
by low-rise buildings, temples and shophouses, with many residents
relying on motorbikes or motorized rickshaws instead of cars.
Critics say the two bridges that now serve the island aren’t nearly
sufficient to handle the tens of thousands of people who gathered on
the island on Nove. 29 or large crowds for other potential events. A
spokesman for Diamond Island, which built the bridge where the stampede
occurred and which is controlled by a Cambodian tycoon, said the
developer is paying compensation to victims and planning more bridges
in the future.
“Nobody
expected” such a disaster, said the spokesman, Charles Vann. Diamond
Island will proceed and ultimately help make Phnom Penh a more livable
city, he said.
“Phnom Penh has been left behind for a long time and now they’re
giving Phnom Penh an opportunity to grow,” Mr. Vann said. “If you have
a good master plan, I don’t think it’s a problem. It will benefit the
city.”
In the 1970s, Phnom Penh’s population dropped to 50,000 or fewer
after a radical Maoist group known as the Khmer Rouge outlawed private
property and forced residents out in a disastrous bid to create an
agricultural utopia.
Vietnamese forces toppled the regime in 1979, leading to years of civil war that petered out in the 1990s.
[CAMBODIA.chrt]By 2004, Cambodia was posting annual economic growth in excess of
10%. Investors from South Korea and elsewhere were pouring money into
the property market, giving the city its first skyscrapers, including a
recently completed 32-story tower named after a local bank owned by the
investors behind Diamond Island.
Although new developments stopped during the global financial
crisis, many have restarted, though some were scaled down to smaller
sizes.
Among the most controversial is a massive city-within-a-city
developed by a local company on more than 100 hectares of land, much of
which used to be covered by a giant lake near the center of Phnom Penh.
The Boeung Kak lake is now being drained, displacing as many as 4,000
families, and giant trucks are leveling sand for construction of
housing and commercial developments, though full details remain unclear.
Long Vin, a 45-year-old resident in the area, says a company named
Shukaku Inc. ripped down four houses she owned along the lake,
including three she rented to other residents. Now she lives in a
wood-and-corrugated-metal shanty on the edge of a rail line nearby.
Shukaku had offered her about $8,500 for the four homes, she says,
but she refused because she thought they were worth $100,000.
The company offered to relocate her to a new community about 30
kilometers from Phnom Penh, she said, but she and other residents have
refused to move because they fear relocation areas are too far away,
without sufficient jobs or health care.
Efforts to locate officials at Shukaku were unsuccessful. In a local
newspaper interview in October, a representative of the company said it
was difficult to do such a major development without some negative
impact, and referred other questions to the government.
Government officials have said efforts to handle displaced residents
may not be perfect but that development is necessary for the city’s
progress and that conditions for relocated people will improve over
time as new infrastructure and jobs are added in their new communities.

—Sun Narin contributed to this article.

 

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