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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - City buries Pearl of Asia plan

City buries Pearl of Asia plan

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Since Phnom Penh City Hall signed over a 133-hectare block of the Boeng Kak area

to a private developer last month, rights groups and legal experts have raised concerns

about the transparency of the 99-year lease deal, and the ominous land eviction set

to precede it.

The "Pearl Plan" for the development of Boeng Kak that won Phnom Penh City Hall's international urbanism competition in 2003. The plan has since been buried and the lake may now be filled to approximately 10 percent of its existing size.

One rights group claims the mass relocation of 4,250 families may be the largest

in Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge evicted the capital's residents in 1975, and

it is certainly the largest since land was privatized in 1989.

The city's deal with the little-known developer Shukaku Inc has raised questions

about compensation for the residents - most of whom have lived in the area for over

a decade. Now, the villagers face an uncertain future, with their homes and livelihoods

set to be bulldozed in the name of urban progress.

Also unclear is exactly how Shukaku plans to develop the area. Both the municipality

and the company have refused to release a plan of the coming development. In fact,

in the deal with the private developer the municipality has apparently buried the

results of an international planning competition for the development of Boeng Kak

that the city itself organized in 2003. At the time, Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema

charged groups of international urbanists and architects - each with a Cambodian

representative - with the task of "reclaiming" the site.

The brief for the competition stated that the Boeng Kak area was a "development

priority for the city." The objectives were to improve living conditions for

the residents in the area; to give the area a "metropolitan flavor;" to

develop commercial and residential zones; and to create new boulevards, public transport

networks and "green areas."

The brief also stated that the relation between Phnom Penh and water is fundamental,

with "ponds, canals, dikes, pumps and embankments indispensable structural elements

for urban expansion and for the management of major risks." Accordingly, a major

objective of the planning competition was "to maintain the lake's water surface,

and to better link the pond to the city drainage system in order to protect the northern

part of town, now in full expansion, from flooding."

Chuktema presented the results of the competition in April 2004, with the prize-winning

design entitled the "Pearl Plan." Among the main features of the design

(see map) were a "vast green space accessible to all," and a dense residential

area, located to the north of the lake, "for all categories of population."

It also proposed a number of tourist and commercial zones, the relocation of the

train station 1 km to the west and a green corridor stretching along the west of

the lakeside. The plan required a new canal to Boeng (lake) Poung Peay, northwest

of Boeng Kak, and necessitated only a small amount of landfill in the north, west

and northeast of Boeng Kak.

The competition report stated that the winning design "articulated a dense urban

green lung in an Asian metropolis that will reclaim for Phnom Penh the title of 'The

Pearl of Asia.'"

But the Pearl Plan was apparently abandoned soon after it was acclaimed.

In July 2006, the municipality said plans for the development of Boeng Kak had been

finalized, with Deputy Governor Pa Socheatevong telling local media that all but

10 hectares of the 90-hectare lake would be filled. This is a drastic reduction in

size far greater than that advocated by the Pearl Plan.

Now Socheatevong is tight-lipped about how much of the lake will be filled and refused

to comment when contacted by the Post. Although the contract states that the development

involves filling in some of the lake, it does not stipulate to what extent. Shukuku

Inc director Lao Meng Khin could not be contacted for comment.

But with Boeng Kak composing 90 hectares of the 133-hectare leasehold, economic logic

and precedent suggest it will be filled. Last year, 119 hectares was filled in on

the eastern shore of Poung Peay lake in the Tuol Kok district as part of the "New

Town Project." People who spoke to the Post said this was likely to be the model

for the Boeng Kak development.

Meng Bunnarith was the Cambodian representative on the Pearl Plan. Now a researcher

and urban development expert at the University of Hawaii, he said he expected the

Pearl Plan would be ignored.

"For the coming development, I do not think the developer and City Hall will

follow the team's concepts," Bunnarith told the Post by email. He said the biggest

concern is that the private company will overdevelop the land.

"What I am concerned about most is the loss of green and blue space in the city,"

Bunnarith said. "This is a lung of the city. We need fresh air and natural landscape.

If we can preserve the lake and develop it in a way that is not causing its loss

it is much better."

Bunnarith is also concerned the developer will fail to focus on the long-term future

of the city.

"All private developers seem to do things for short-term benefits; they want

to get fresh money right back after their development is completed," he said.

"Before it is too late, the municipality should reframe its development concepts.

It should ask itself if it wants to leave things fair for the future. How to get

things done is now in its hands. The beauty of the city is in its hands."

Ho Vann, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said he had serious concerns about the lack of

transparency and the public benefit of the development, and said the leasehold deal

should have gone before the National Assembly.

"This deal is not in the national interest; this is public land and now it has

been leased to a private company at a price that is far too low," Ho Vann said.

"Soon only a few very rich people will own land in Phnom Penh. I think the company

will simply fill in the lake and then sell on that new land without developing it.

That way they can make a lot of money because the land will be prime real estate."

Ho Vann said he was angry the government was leasing Phnom Penh's precious green

space, and said he would oppose any plans to fill in the lake.

"The lake is about three million cubic metres and if that gets filled it will

lead to drainage and flooding problems in Phnom Penh," he said.

Others have also voiced concerns about the environmental impact of the development

and the threat of serious flooding caused by filling Boeng Kak. The lake is one of

the most important of the seven lakes in the Phnom Penh area, which act as natural

reservoirs for excess rainwater during the flood season. Although hard to fathom

now, it was once a recreation playground for city dwellers and featured an island

restaurant at the center.

The Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) - a coalition of about 20 national and international

organizations - said in a statement that the leasehold deal was "illegal"

and the development would not only cause the largest land eviction since the privatization

of land in 1989, but create major environmental problems.

"If the lake is filled, it could spell disaster for the entire city, which has

already witnessed a worsening of flooding during the rainy season, likely as a result

of the filling of other city lakes," the statement read. "This is serious

concern for all of Phnom Penh's residents and it highlights the urgent need for protection

of natural resources and a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the

project."

The HRTF said the contract was signed without conducting an EIA - a process required

by the Law on Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management, as well as

the Law on Investment.

In announcing the Boeng Kak development, Socheatevong said the construction of a

new drainage canal to Boeng Poung Peay - one idea taken from the Pearl Plan - would

alleviate any pressures on Phnom Penh's drainage system caused by filling in Boeng

Kak. Socheatevong said the landfill would not exacerbate Phnom Penh's flooding.

But local architect and urbanist Helen Grant Ross said City Hall had "absolutely

no vision for Phnom Penh," and was disappointed that the results of the Boeng

Kak development competition had been dropped.

Ross said filling Boeng Kak would certainly affect the area's complex hydraulic and

drainage system as well as the Mekong, the fourth largest river in the world.

"They call the Mekong 'the Dragon' for very good reason: you don't disturb it.

They'll fill in the lake and one day the Mekong will take its revenge, because they

didn't do any feasibility studies," she said. "Cambodians never lived here

- it was a colonial idea. It's a dangerous place and all this development is going

to increase the density of the city, but is that suitable for the fragile wetland

that we find ourselves in here?"

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