High on the rise, what it means for development

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A view over Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

High on the rise, what it means for development

Over recent years, Phnom Penh’s skyline has been changing at breakneck speed as taller and taller buildings change one of Southeast Asia’s last low-rise capitals.

According to an unreleased report by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction that looked at 600 new buildings both finished and under construction, Phnom Penh’s development has been broken down into three categories. While the city is still dominated by buildings that range from five to nine floors, at a total of 361 buildings, it is not a surprise that their numbers showed a growing trend towards upward development. The report found that there are 167 buildings between 10 to 19 floors, 21 buildings were between 21 to 29 floors, while only twelve were above 30 floors, four of which over 40 floors.

Lao Tip Seiha, deputy general director of construction department of the Ministry Of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, said looking at the change in Phnom Penh’s skyline is an indicator of the country’s development. If compared to neighboring countries, he said that Phnom Penh’s growth is following the same path as other major cities. And that the high-rise developments reflect adequate urban planning and infrastructure.

“More high-rise buildings illustrate that Cambodia has achieved more than it ever has before,” he said. “Foreigners who visited Cambodia even five years ago are surprised by the achievement.”

Kim Heang, president of Khmer Real Estate, said taller buildings are a positive sign for Cambodia’s economic strength and stability.

As the shift continues from low-rise to high-rise—defined by international standards as being between 35 to 100 metres tall—Heang said that although there are a “relatively few number of high-rise buildings,” the dramatic change is underway.

“If we want Cambodia to be a young tiger economy, it can be,” he said reflecting upon the importance the construction industry has on driving economic growth. But while the increase of taller buildings is impressive, he noted that ensuring further development rests on codifing the construction sector and adopting a master plan.

“If the leaders want to steer the country in the right direction, they know how do it. But what is important is if they want to or not,” he said.

While Phnom Penh’s development has never been faster, Srey Channy, an independent economic analyst, was less optimistic that high-rise development is an adequate barometer for Cambodia’s economic stability.

He believes that over the last four years, the speed of development has rested on the ASEAN integration to drive in more investment, as well as filling office space and condominiums with tenants.

However, without knowing how the ASEAN integration will actually play out, Channy said that current development “is like a plane that flies too fast. It is time for investors to take a break” in order to properly analyze the upcoming market forces.

He noted that while most investors don’t use their own capital for development projects, nor local banks, as the majority of financing comes from overseas investment, that even if a project is completed there are few indicators that the buildings will be able to find occupants.

“High-rise buildings are apparently seen as good” but it does not reflect the actual strength of the economy “because those buildings will not be so active and productive for the economy,” he added.

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