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“Untouchable” area of old Beijing under threat

China.org.cn by John Sexton, Thursday 13 May

A local resident told reporters a senior district government official had informed him that demolition of traditional hutongs surrounding the capital's Drum and Bell Towers will begin in June. (Photo: Ren Zhongxi/China.org.cn)

A local resident told reporters a senior district government official had informed him that demolition of traditional hutongs surrounding the capital's Drum and Bell Towers will begin in June. (Photo: Ren Zhongxi/China.org.cn)

One of Beijing’s last remaining traditional neighborhoods could fall under the wrecker’s ball as early as next month, China.org.cn has learned.

A local resident told reporters a senior district government official had informed him that demolition of traditional hutongs surrounding the capital’s Drum and Bell Towers will begin in June.

The hutongs are to be cleared to make way for a controversial “Beijing Time Cultural City” development announced in January by the Dongcheng district government.

The 12-hectare project will feature public art celebrating the past timekeeping role of the Drum and Bell towers. There will also be a conference center and an underground area comprising parking lots, shops and a museum. In January, Dongcheng district mayor Yang Yiwen told Beijing Times the government was hoping to “attract international company HQs and international conferences.”

It is thought residents displaced by the project will be relocated to Shunyi, a new town 30 kilometers east of Beijing.

The lead contractor is Beijing Oriental Culture Assets Operation Corporation – a state-owned company that has worked on several Beijing developments, including Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s 800,000 sq. m. Oriental Plaza.

Despite repeated calls, China.org.cn was not able to confirm the project start date with officials. Beijing Oriental said it is not authorized to release information. Li Yi from the Dongcheng media office said, “There is no more information about the project to tell the public.” When asked if it would be possible to speak with Yang Yiwen, Li said the mayor was “not taking interviews,” and “when she is ready to talk she will hold a press conference.”

Conservationists had thought hutongs in the Drum and Bell Tower area were protected by cultural preservation orders and virtually untouchable. But the indications are that the district government intends to press ahead with the redevelopment.

There is no doubt the area has severe problems. Most of the hutong houses are dilapidated and overcrowded. Few have sanitary facilities; residents use public toilets and washrooms. Businesses have added incongruous extensions to traditional buildings. The wall of what was once a mosque now sports tacky bas-reliefs of the Terracotta Warriors.

But like many run-down inner city areas around the world, Gulou has become trendy. New boutiques, jewelry shops, bars and restaurants are springing up. Unfortunately, such gradual, slightly bohemian gentrification has little to offer a local government thirsty for revenue.

“Other districts have many big projects. We are envious, but we don’t have the space,” Yang Yiwen told Beijing Times in January.

By demolishing decaying high-maintenance housing and shifting a high-density population with its attendant high social costs, the government could turn a “loss-making” area into a revenue-generating asset through land sales, rent and business taxation.

Dongcheng has been planning to redevelop the area for more than a decade. China.org.cn has obtained documents detailing a six-month workshop led by Italian architect Professor Carlo Greco in 2006-2007. Some elements of the current plans, including the underground parking lots, can be found in Professor Greco’s proposals. But his suggestions for new buildings were simple and restrained.

Professor Greco’s report also drew attention to what is perhaps the key issue: “The contrast between the extreme poverty of the residents and extremely high land prices.”

Earlier this year, according to Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BJCHP), the Massachusetts-based Boston International Design Group, had plans for the area on its website. They were removed after the conservationists made enquiries.

“The Chinese government and real estate developers often like to involve international designers and architects to show that they are legitimate,” BJCHP founder He Shuzhong told journalists in March.

The Dongcheng government’s chance to press ahead with the development came this year when the Beijing government offered it 17.5 hectares of land in Shunyi.

Beijing conservationists bemoan the disappearance of traditional neighborhoods and complain that the city has become an experimental zone for foreign architects. Landmarks like the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the National Theatre and the new Central Television HQ are feted overseas, but are less popular locally.

But what conservationists fear most is that the area will suffer the fate of the formerly bustling Qianmen street, south of Tian’anmen Square, which in 2008 was replaced with a lifeless Qing-dynasty pastiche, complete with a fake tram.

“We do not want to see the model of redevelopment of Qianmen being spread to other areas. We still have officials as well as specialists, experts, who consider it a model of success for protection and redevelopment,” He Shuzhong told journalists in March. Many locals strongly oppose the government scheme.

“I don’t want to leave, but this is the government,” a local businessman whose family has lived in the area for decades said. “What can we do? Arms can’t fight thighs.”

Residents said that when the plans were announced, some people tried to organize a sit-down protest in the square between the two towers, but police prevented them. A public meeting planned for March 26 by BJCHP was canceled at the last minute after police pressure.

But opposition is not unanimous, especially among poorer residents. There are many comments on the BJCHP website telling the organization to keep its nose out of the affair. Many people are desperate to get out of dilapidated, overcrowded and unsanitary houses into modern apartments.

A middle-aged couple showed us the cracks in the walls of their apartment explaining they had been demanding repairs for years with little result. “The chief came round in a luxury car to check one day. But we have heard nothing since.”

Sky-high compensation is another incentive to relocate. Leaks from Dongcheng officials indicate that displaced residents may be paid as much as 200,000 yuan (29,000 U. S. dollars) per square meter.

Beijing real-estate market watcher Bill Bishop says sums of up to 150,000 yuan have been paid out on recent similar developments. He says the payments reflect the fact that “under no circumstances does the government want to see force used to move people inside Beijing’s center.”

Many residents will be happy enough to take the compensation and relocate, but for people hoping that Beijing will preserve at least some of its traditional areas, these are anxious times.

“From what I hear, the project will wind up as another soulless imitation of Western consumerism in the form of a bogus Old Peking theme park. I can’t bring myself to visit many of the places that I wrote about; it is all too tragic,” said Michael Aldrich, author of The Search for a Vanishing Beijing.

Read original article.

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