Dagon City ‘Will Resume’, Amid Calls for Planning Overhaul

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 13 February 2015

RANGOON — Two weeks after the sudden suspension of the Dagon City 1 high-rise project highlighted the inconsistencies of Rangoon’s current planning regime, the development appears set to go ahead as planned after a government review is concluded.

Along with four other projects nearby, work at the 22-acre Dagon City 1 site was halted on Jan. 22 after the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) requested a four-week pause, in order to allow an independent team from the Myanmar Engineers Society and the municipal Committee for Quality Control of High Rise Building Projects to review the proposal.

Construction work has yet to begin for the US$300 million project, a joint venture between the international Marga Group syndicate and local partners Thu Kha Yadanar slated to feature a five star hotel, apartments, and a shopping complex in the vicinity of Shwedagon Pagoda.

Aung Naing Oo, director of the MIC, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the review had been ordered by the Union government.

“The people upstairs instructed us to reassess all the projects. It probably comes from the President’s Office,” he said. “They have asked us to reassess the projects to determine whether they would have an impact on the architectural heritage nearby. The Myanmar Engineering Society is now inspecting all projects in the area. Based on their report, the projects will be resumed.”

On Saturday, The Irrawaddy quoted Toe Aung, director of the Urban Planning Department in the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), as saying that Dagon City 1 had been suspended because the project’s buildings would exceed the height of the original proposal. Marga Group chairman Stephen Suen said the development’s height had not been altered from the initial proposal approved by the MIC, and any suggestion to the contrary was misinformed.

“All the height requirements are strictly in accordance with existing legislation, we have to emphasise that,” Suen told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “We haven’t changed the height, it’s the same as the original proposal. We submitted the proposal 18 months ago, we had two hearings, and representatives from all relevant ministries came.”

As local partner, Thu Kha Yadanar was responsible for acquisition of the project site and the initial stages of the application. Thaung Htike Min, Thu Kha Yadanar’s director, told The Irrawaddy that the Dagon City 1 proposal passed every component of the YCDC approval process and was found to be in accordance with MIC regulations.

“We didn’t make any changes to the proposal that was approved by YCDC,” he said.

The issue of building heights has been contentious in recent years, with heritage advocates pushing for legal safeguards to protect sightlines to Shwedagon Pagoda from high-rise developments. While regulatory restrictions limiting building heights have existed for some time, the lack of a legal framework has led to a haphazard approval process.

A 62-foot height limit within a mile of Shwedagon has been official government policy since at least 2011, according to Thant Myint-U, the chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust. The YCDC devised a draft zoning law to formalize this height restriction in January 2014 with the intention of submitting it to the Rangoon Division parliament. Progress on the draft law has been stalled ever since.

Suen said that it was the opinion of Marga Group’s lawyers, international surveyors and a local architect that Dagon City 1 was situated in a zone permitting a total building height of 190 feet, below the base of Shwedagon Pagoda. The development proposal, approved by both the YCDC and MIC, included building heights of eight storeys, higher than the apparent de facto restrictions on buildings in the area, but well short of 190 feet.

Htay Aung, president of the YCDC’s High-Rise Building Inspection Committee (IHC), a municipal body that was a party to the approval process for Dagon City 1, said that the lack of a formal zoning law was preventing the committee from making expedient decisions on development approvals.

“I can’t make any comment as to how [the project was approved] as it all happened before I become the head of this committee,” he said. “The government should officially approve the zoning law as soon as possible. Only then can we make decisions [on high-rise development permissions] effectively.”

With the temporary suspension of the five Dagon Township projects, the issue appears to have recaptured the attention of divisional lawmakers.

Thein Nyunt, the Lower House MP for Thingangyun Township, used a parliamentary session on Tuesday to ask the government to pass the zoning law, telling The Irrawaddy on Thursday he had concerns about the impact of Dagon City 1 on Shwedagon.

“I can’t support the project as it threatens our national heritage,” he said. “The government shouldn’t allow that kind of project, even after suspension for review. They must say that buildings that could interfere with the view of Shwedagon are not permitted. Are they going to sacrifice our national heritage to make way for development?”

Thein Nyunt’s view was echoed by Thant Myint-U, who told The Irrawaddy that the area around Shwedagon should be left untouched.

“I can’t think of anything more important to heritage conservation in Yangon [Rangoon] than the protection of Shwedagon and views of Shwedagon, For millions of people, it’s a priceless asset. With so much unused land in Yangon and so many other potential sites for medium and high-rise developments, I really don’t see why there should be any development, especially one that would be over 62 feet, within the Shwedagon area,” Thant Myint-U said.

“Let me be clear that I certainly don’t oppose developments like Dagon City. It’s the location that’s the issue. We need the kind of investment Marga Landmark wants to make in Yangon’s future and I would be happy to see more modern developments like Dagon City elsewhere,” he added.

While Shwedagon is on a YCDC heritage list, both the pagoda and the surrounding area are yet to be officially listed as a heritage site by any international body. Any attempts to block the Dagon City 1 on heritage grounds should be considered accordingly, said Suen.

“By international legal standards, our land is not inside a heritage site. This is our lawyers’ opinion,” Suen told The Irrawaddy. “I want to emphasise this…Please make it very clear, otherwise my shareholders will ask me to take legal action to protect our reputation.”

Whether locals will abide the development is another matter. Rangoon-based architect Maw Lin said that present restrictions on building in the area, aside from being too lenient, were also out of step with public opinion.

“Even though the pagoda is not in a protected area, you should not build that high,” he said. “They are in a haste to implement it just before the [draft zoning] law is endorsed.”

“They can’t just focus on business. This is an ethical issue. They should know how culturally and religiously important the Shwedagon is to the Burmese.”

Ultimately, it appears that the Dagon City 1 project will continue as planned despite the interruption. There is no suggestion that the YCDC would seek to reassess and negotiate changes with developers, as flagged by Toe Aung on Saturday, nor that the divisional government would attempt to enact the zoning law and apply it to approvals retrospectively. Thaung Htike Min told The Irrawaddy that the 10-member technical team inspecting the site since last month had yet to flag any issues with Dagon City 1, and Aung Naing Oo said that the MIC trusted the recommendations of the YCDC.

“The MIC approved those projects because they were recommended by the YCDC,” said Aung Naing Oo. “I don’t think those buildings could damage the view of the pagoda, as they have been approved by experts from the YCDC.”

Suen told The Irrawaddy that Marga Group’s investment criteria drew the syndicates to projects that would “beautify the country”. A doctoral graduate in Buddhism from the University of Hong Kong, he said that Marga Group had also devised a proposal, subject to government approval, to improve the area around Shwedagon, allowing easier access to both tourists and the general public to worship at the revered pagoda.

While Dagon City 1 will be tailored towards higher-end consumers, Suen said that benefits of the development would be open to everyone.

“The site can be enjoyed by the whole society, especially in the shopping area,” he said. “If you are poor or you are rich, you can come here. If you are rich you can buy things. The poor can look at the windows and do window shopping.”