Land Management Minister Chea Sophara doubled down on controversial remarks recently made by local officials, suggesting he could expedite redevelopment plans for the White Building only as long as the Cambodian People’s Party was re-elected in the upcoming commune elections.
Speaking to residents on Friday, Sophara echoed statements made by the community’s two village chiefs – Hun Sarath and Ngem Sovan – who informed residents on Thursday that a quick resolution to the longstanding issue of residents’ eviction was linked to the ruling party’s fortunes in the June ballot.
Sophara urged voters to remain with the CPP, and suggested that he would be unable to work with officials from any other party should they emerge victorious in the upcoming poll.
“The commune chief is from CPP and I am from CPP,” he told the 500-strong group. “I can support the CPP, but cannot support any other party.”
Some residents interviewed on Thursday said that after the village chiefs’ exhortations to vote CPP, they were worried that picking an opposition candidate would hurt their chances for a speedy compensation process. Other residents, meanwhile, along with observers and opposition members, panned the remarks for inappropriately politicising the issue at all.
The latest attempt to redevelop the White Building site involves a $70 million plan to raze the iconic structure and replace it with a 21-storey mixed-use building.
Japanese firm Arakawa Co will develop the project, which will keep aside five floors for residents who chose to return to the site after construction. The firm will have 14 floors of residential units to sell privately.
Sophara was present on Friday to ask villagers to choose one of two compensation packages: selling their apartments and relinquishing their claim to one of the new units, or being relocated during construction and later returning to take apartments in the new building.
While an initial ministry survey showed that around 89 percent of the residents wanted a buyout, a headcount on Friday showed nearly all residents wanted to leave the White Building. However, as with other similar projects, price remains a sticking point.
The minister said that Arakawa was offering around $1,260 per square metre, adding that the price could rise, at most, by another $50. “If the villagers demand too high a price, the company will not have the ability to pay those prices. But I will try to discuss with the company, and you will have to wait till the next meeting,” he said.
The building’s residents, however, were dissatisfied with this offer. Resident Dy Sophanaramany said occupants were looking to sell their apartments for around $2,000 to $2,300 per square metre, asking the minister to reconsider the offer.
“We do not want to leave here crying and not have enough money to buy a new house,” she said.
Fellow resident Kol Sovann said the White Building was centrally located, close to schools and accessible to civic amenities, so it was not unreasonable to expect a higher rate.
Village chief Ngem Sovan said even if the residents didn’t agree to the rate, the government would seek to find an amicable solution rather than resorting to forcible evictions, as it has in similar cases in the past.
Ngeth Chou, senior consultant at Emerging Markets Consulting, said the compensation package may be fair for those living on the first floor and above, though the price should be closer to the $4,000 mark for the ground floor, given its commercial potential.
“I think the price for the land there in the middle of city is around $4,000 to $5,000 [per square metre]. Because the land at the White Building is very high priced now if you compare it to other areas in city,” he said.