Proposed High-Rise Tower Stirs Tension in Rangoon

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 17 September 2013

RANGOON— A heritage conservation group in Burma’s ex-capital has slammed the planned construction of a US$100 million high-rise office tower directly next to a century-old heritage building in the center of a downtown heritage zone.

“A high-rise building at 555 Merchant Street absolutely cannot be allowed,” Thant Myint-U, chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, told The Irrawaddy, “because we have billions of dollars’ worth of Asia’s last remaining early 20th century landscape, and any high-rise projects in the middle of the old historic district will ruin it.”

The proposed 38-story “555 Merchant Street Office Tower” would stand beside the Indian Embassy, a 100-year-old heritage building at the corner of Merchant and 36th streets in Kyauktada Township. The signing ceremony for the $100 million project was held in early November last year between Singapore-based Kawa Oil Company and the two owners of the property—Khin Maung Aye, chairman of The Co-operative Bank, and Htay Aung, chairman of the National Group of Companies—according to a report by The Myanmar Times newspaper.

Khin Maung Aye is known among local businesspeople as a close friend of Burma’s reformist President Thein Sein.

“We haven’t approved the project yet,” said Toe Aung, deputy head of the Department of City Planning and Land Administration for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the city’s administrative body.

Toe Aung told The Irrawaddy that the Indian Embassy had complained about the project, and that the YCDC was negotiating with the land owners over the office tower’s height. He added that plots of land neighboring heritage buildings were off limits for the construction of high-rise towers.

“We don’t want to allow the construction because the tower could easily dominate heritage buildings like the Indian Embassy and the former US Embassy building nearby,” he said. Both buildings are on the Rangoon City Heritage List, designated by YCDC.

More importantly, the planned tower falls within the “Old Administrative Buildings Core,” one of Rangoon’s seven heritage zones designated by a draft zoning plan that was “blessed” by Thein Sein and Rangoon Chief Minister Myint Swe as a measure to protect the former capital’s century-old buildings and rich colonial architecture.

Within the zone, and a stone’s throw from the proposed tower, lies Lower Pansodan Street (formerly Phayre Street), which is famous for the old office buildings of HSBC Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Nearly all of these buildings were used as government offices before the former military regime moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005.

Thant Myint-U of the Yangon Heritage Trust is at the forefront of efforts to save as many of the city’s moldering colonial edifices as possible. He said a high-rise building at the planned location would oppose a commitment by the president and Rangoon chief minister to prioritize conservation in urban planning.

“The government has made considerable progress and shown a real commitment, and that’s why it’s so important not to go ahead with this, as it would overturn all the good work so far,” he said.

The respected historian warned that if the planned tower were built at the proposed height, it would make a mockery of the city’s nearly finished draft zoning regulations. The regulations were prepared by experts from the YCDC, the Ministry of Construction’s Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development, the Yangon Heritage Trust, Mandalay Technological University, the Association of Myanmar Architects, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Htay Aung, co-owner of the property, said the project was waiting for YCDC approval. He said developers were still trying to meet local government requirements for the project, including by asking residents in the neighborhood for permission to build.

“The Rangoon divisional government has urged YCDC to quickly give us approval if the project meets their requirements,” he said. “If we don’t get permission from the neighborhood, the divisional government has ordered us to submit the case to the Union [national] government.”

He told The Irrawaddy that authorities in Rangoon’s divisional government had encouraged the construction of more high-rise buildings. While the original plans called for a 38-story tower at 555 Merchant Street, he said the municipal body approved six months ago a tower of 33 stories, at a height of 127 meters.

“If they can’t approve the current height, we need to follow whatever the permit allows,” he said.

Thant Myint-U thinks and hopes the developers will run into problems.

“It’s very unlikely that all the neighbors will agree,” he said. “If it goes up to the Union level, I hope the government will not only fully protect this heritage area, but also help the companies involved find a good alternative site.”

Why is he so bitterly opposed to the tower, while several other construction projects are also ongoing in the downtown area? Because the site is not only next to a heritage building, but in the middle of the city’s principle heritage zone.

He said Rangoon’s skyline was already dominated by Traders Hotel and the Sakura Tower, but that the addition of other high-rise buildings along Bogyoke Aung San Road at the same approximate height could be acceptable.

“But we should set overall standards within a proper zoning plan,” he said. “There are many areas downtown where the government could encourage high-rise development, even just half a mile away from the proposed site.”

Apart from Traders Hotel and Sakura Tower, Rangoon currently has few high-rise buildings, but more are likely on the way in coming years. The construction of a 20-story Traders Square is now in progress beside the hotel, while two other high-rise buildings are being constructed nearby.

Architects agree that without smart management, high-rise buildings in the city center would likely have negative consequences not only for heritage sites, but for residents in the city of more than 5 million people.

“From an urban planning point of view, we don’t want to have that kind of high-rise in the city center, if possible,” said Dr. Kyaw Latt, an urban planning expert. He said a tower with a large floor area would likely attract many people, making the area more crowded.

Moe Moe Lwin, general secretary of the Association of Myanmar Architects, added that high-rise buildings could block important views and require more services such as parking spaces.

“Downtown Rangoon has colonial architecture and still reflects the original urban landscape—we should keep that,” she said.

Thant Myint-U acknowledged that Rangoon urgently needed new modern office buildings, and he said the government should encourage local companies to find international partners and build new commercial spaces. But those spaces should be in an appropriate place, he added.

Meanwhile, with a weed-choke compound and rickety fence, the 7,000 square meter plot of land at 555 Merchant Street remains little more than an eyesore. Near the entrance, a ship propeller mysteriously stands like a work of installation art, leaving curious passerby puzzled.

“The only new building that could be allowed there would be at a height no taller than the Indian Embassy, with an appropriate setback [the distance a building is set back from the street] materials and a design that complements the immediate environment.”