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Public lot on riverside eyed for major project

Boats can be seen on a riverside plot in Phnom Penh in January that was recently transferred from state-public distinction to state-private.
Boats can be seen on a riverside plot in Phnom Penh in January that was recently transferred from state-public distinction to state-private. Heng Chivoan

Public lot on riverside eyed for major project

Plans appear to be in the works to develop a central stretch of prime riverfront real estate currently owned by a state-run enterprise into a sprawling commercial development, according to sources involved with the landowner, though key government officials professed to be in the dark as to the nature of the deal.

The 9.25 hectares of riverside land, stretching from the Night Market to the Chroy Changvar Bridge on the east side of Sisowath Quay, was reclassified from state-public to state-private land in a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month. A large portion of the land – independently estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars – is currently occupied by the state-run Phnom Penh Autonomous Port (PPAP).

The new designation opens up the plot to be sold or leased to a private company for development.

Profits from the sale of the land could end up in the hands of the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF), which owns 80 percent of PPAP’s shares, according to the Cambodia Stock Exchange. A representative of real estate firm Century 21 Mekong has estimated the value of the land at $4,000 to $6,000 per square metre, which would make the stretch of reclassified land worth between $350 million and $550 million.

Contacted on Wednesday, PPAP director-general Hei Bavy referred questions to a port official named Chanthy and gave a reporter the official’s phone number.

The man who answered that phone declined to confirm or give his name, but said that the PPAP had a project in the works with a private company to develop the stretch of land. He said the company had not yet received permission from the government, however, so details were sparse.

“The development may consist of a condominium, hotel, office building and will be a hub of commercial activity,” he said, insisting the port would not have to relocate. “We will keep the port functioning.”

A document posted to the Facebook page of Chinese developer Yue Tai Harbour Bay shows an artist’s rendering of the same stretch of riverside lined with more than 20 tall buildings. The first picture was posted to the page in November, about four months before the land officially became available for private development.

A representative of Yue Tai confirmed that a project existed on that plot of land, but declined to provide any further information. (For more details on the development, turn to page 3 of Post Property.)
The PPAP official contacted by The Post declined to confirm Yue Tai was the private partner for the project. He also declined to give any information regarding construction or sale timelines, noting that the PPAP was a publicly listed company on the Cambodia Stock Exchange and thus any official announcements would need to be made in a filing.

Key government officials, including some at the PPAP itself, have said that they don’t have any information on the project.

Penn Sovicheat, who sits on the PPAP board of directors as the representative from the Commerce Ministry, said on Wednesday he was unaware of any plan to sell the land.

Va Sim Sorya, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT), and Ken Ratha, the deputy director of the ministry’s cabinet, both said they did not have detailed information about the project and referred questions to the PPAP.

MEF spokesman Nup Sothun Vichet declined to answer questions about the project on Tuesday and referred reporters to the MPWT.

The only other shareholder with more than a 5 percent stake in the PPAP is Mekong Strategic Partners (MSP), a private investment firm in Phnom Penh.

Stephen Higgins, managing partner at MSP, said on Wednesday his company had known for some time that PPAP was looking to rent the riverfront land.

“This land is not essential to the future operations of the port, so PPAP should definitely be looking at options for it,” he said.

He also said the land’s reclassification “makes sense, given that PPAP is now a publicly listed company, and it has legal title over the land”.

According to the 2001 Land Law, the transfer of state-public land to state-private can occur when that land has lost its value to the public.

Article 16 of law states, “When State public properties lose their public interest use, they can be listed as private properties of the State by law on transferring of state public property to state private property.”

Isaac Daniels, a program adviser at urban land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, declined to comment on the law surrounding such reclassifications, but called for additional study into the value of the previously public space.

“This area needs to be analysed to determine its importance to the public,” Daniels said in an email. While he said he was unsure the space in question was used widely by the public, he called for more input before any decisions were made.

“Public space serves an important purpose in cities,” he said. “Whether Phnom Penh should have more or less public space is a matter for the citizens of Phnom Penh to decide, and we do not know if they have been consulted at all in this matter.”

In February last year, Phnom Penh City Hall revealed a plan to make the same stretch of land a pedestrian pathway, but work on that project never began. Multiple attempts to reach a City Hall spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.

And while the northern section of the stretch is currently occupied by the PPAP, the southern part is a public park where tourist boats offering sunset cruises often dock.

Several boat owners who dock their boats in the area told The Post on Wednesday that rumours of their imminent eviction had begun circulating in January, after several owners observed workers extracting soil in the area.

When questioned by the boat owners, the workers said they were testing the soil because a company planned to develop tall buildings with condominiums and a hotel.

This version corrects the type of decree that was used to reclassify the plot of land. It was a sub-decree.

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