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Associated Press:Despite Promises, Old Beijing Neighborhoods Fall

By HENRY SANDERSON, Associated Press Writer Mon Jun 16, 12:17 PM ET

BEIJING – When Olympic marathon runners pass through Beijing’s historic Qianmen neighborhood this August, the gray-brick storefronts with red and gold curved eaves will only look like traditional Chinese architecture.

The area’s main shopping drag is being rebuilt with two- and three-story commercial buildings that will house name brands from Prada to Starbucks. In the narrow alleys to the east, more than 10,000 families have been moved out of their one-story courtyard homes that are a symbol of old Beijing to make way for pricier residences, high-end restaurants and a boutique hotel.

The redevelopment project, covering an area roughly 17 blocks long by six blocks wide, will bring big change to a neighborhood near the old imperial city and Tiananmen Square that dates back more than 400 years to the Ming Dynasty . It gets its name from the towering gate — Qianmen means “front gate” — that was once an entrance to the city.

“Old Beijing is not just for Chinese people but for people of the world,” said Zhao Gengjun, 50, whose family was evicted after living in the same home for five generations. “But they want to demolish it and make fake houses after all the ordinary people have left.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Alarmed by the destruction of old Beijing, the city agreed in 2002 to preserve 25 historic areas, including part of Qianmen. That year, the national government pledged in a Beijing Olympics Action Plan to pay “special attention” to conserving buildings in those areas.

But the destruction has continued — and in some cases accelerated — amid a property boom that is transforming the city. Developers and the local governments that control land permits stand to profit from the boom, and their interests have prevailed. The Olympics, in the end, fed this trend as the government itself undertook a $40 billion makeover of the city.

Today, about 1,000 of the Beijing’s famous old alleyways — known as “hutongs” — remain, down from some 3,000 in 1950.

Qianmen was a bustling area in imperial days, with brothels, opium dens and shops peddling cures, calligraphy and silk, many of which have become national brands. It has some of the city’s only examples of curved hutongs.

Now the government in Beijing’s Chongwen district, which includes Qianmen, is redeveloping the area with help from Pan Shiyi, the founder of SOHO China, one of China’s most successful developers. SOHO eventually plans to take a 49 percent stake in the project and acquire the development rights.

Sun Yunyu, 55, recalls playing by the old city walls as a child and swimming with friends in a stream that snaked through the alleyways. The city walls were destroyed in a drive to industrialize the city that began in the late 1950s.

Sun said she was forced out of her house by police and security officers who carted away the lights and furniture as she watched. Now, her former home sits half-demolished behind metal fencing around the construction site, its traditional roof tiles broken and decorated stone doorway boarded up.

“It protects Chinese culture if you can look after your house and hand it down from generation to generation,” Sun said. “We’ve been educating our children like this, but things turned out another way.”

Xie Chensheng, the Honorary President of the government-affiliated Chinese Cultural Relics Association, defends the project. He notes that he helped persuade Chongwen officials to drop their original plan for a bright-hued modern look and instead rebuild the area in traditional style.

The Qianmen project will preserve about 3 percent of the 89-acre development area, according to SOHO documents filed for its Hong Kong stock exchange listing last year. The success of the listing hinged in large part on the project.

Plans call for saving 11 historic buildings, but it’s unclear which buildings will remain. Many of the one-story homes built around couryards are being gutted. Some will be rebuilt with modern bathrooms; others will give way to new buildings that may retain traditional touches.

Preservationists say the plans by Chongwen district officials are sanitizing the Qianmen neighborhood and destroying its spirit.

The district government made the narrowest interpretation of the 2002 preservation agreement, cherry-picking a few places for preservation and developing the rest, said He Shuzhong, the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an activist group.

“Many officials really don’t believe in preserving old Beijing. They lack an understanding of it, they think it is underdeveloped,” he said.

Chongwen officials declined comment. Wang Chunlei, a spokeswoman for developer SOHO, said only that conservation was the responsibility of the district government.

Qianmen’s main shopping street, along which Olympic marathon runners will pass, is being remade into a pedestrian way more than half a mile long with bright gold street lights in the shape of birdcages. Rolex, Prada, Starbucks, Nike, Adidas and Apple computer are among the 20 foreign brand names that will take retail space, according to Chinese media reports.

The brands are keen to open before the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, said Benjamin Christensen, head of research at property agency Jones Lang LaSalle, which is involved in the project.

Thirteen businesses that had operated in the area for centuries will be allowed to return. They include a famous Pecking duck restaurant, a silk clothing store and a Muslim food shop that cooked meat for an 18th century Qing Dynasty emperor.

The government said residents could stay if they paid for the cost of refurbishing, but that offer was not made until late last year — after many had already moved — and few have taken it up.

Families say they received compensation of about $100 per square foot for the homes they left, and most have moved to Beijing suburbs where properties are cheaper.

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