YCDC Suspends Unlawful Rangoon High-Rises

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 16 May 2016

RANGOON — The municipal body of Burma’s largest city has suspended the construction of high-rise buildings in Rangoon that have not received its final approval, and has announced the formation of a new inspection team for proposed high-rise developments.

The move reveals a convoluted series of official permissions and approvals, which has nonetheless failed to prevent lawless, runaway development in the rapidly expanding city, which has boomed under the heightened investment brought by economic and political reforms.

The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) announced the suspension on Saturday, declaring that “resumption [in each case] would be permitted only after on-the-ground investigations to determine whether those high rise [projects] have followed construction regulations.”

Investigations will be carried out “in detail” by a “coordination team” to ensure “proper urban development,” the announcement read.

Aung San Win, the secretary of YCDC’s High Rise Inspection Committee, told The Irrawaddy that the Rangoon divisional government would form the team.

The divisional government is a separate administrative body to the YCDC. The latter, first established in 1990, is nominally independent of the government and raises its own revenues through tax collection, fees and licenses. However, as with the divisional chief minister, the president of Burma appoints the Rangoon mayor, who chairs the YCDC, which limits the independence of the YCDC in practice.

Elections to fill other seats on the YCDC have been postponed due to the intention of the Rangoon Division Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, expressed publicly earlier this month, to amend the electoral law and expand the franchise beyond heads-of-household.

According to the YCDC, the previous Rangoon divisional government and municipal council had given “initial approval” for proposals to build 204 high-rises (classified as buildings with nine stories or more) from 2013 to March 31 this year.

YCDC issues approvals for buildings with nine to “12.5” stories, while the Rangoon divisional government approves those with 13 stories and above.

According to the regulations, after initial approval, developers must submit their designs for a thorough inspection by multiple sections of the YCDC’s Engineering Department before final approval can be given.

The secretary of the YCDC’s High Rise Inspection Committee told The Irrawaddy on Monday that 104 out of the 204 buildings given initial approval are now under construction. Among the 104, 81 have not received final approval.

“Those 81 buildings fell under the suspension announcement and will face investigation by our team,” he added.

The suspension has come at a time when Burmese urban specialists, who contend that Rangoon is under threat due to the lack of proper urban planning and controls, have been calling on the government to take “urgent action” to rein in unruly urbanization projects, alongside calls for the formation of a committee of experts on sustainable urban management.

Since Burma began to open up economically and politically to the outside world in 2011, heightened investment has initiated large-scale urban development projects—focused on Rangoon, the commercial capital—including high-rise construction on a scale not previously attempted in Burma. But most developments are not adequately regulated; current regulations are ill suited to high-rise construction. A new Myanmar National Building Code and Zoning Plan has languished in draft form for more than two years.

Last year, former President Thein Sein cancelled a mixed-use high-rise project near the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon—backed by international investors and including a luxury condominium, a five-star hotel and a shopping mall—after a sustained public outcry that the project could cause structural damage to the holiest Buddhist site in Burma.

Hla Su Myat, an executive committee member of the Association for Myanmar Architects, said she welcomed the suspension, and the formation of a dedicated inspection team, as good for the city in the long term.

“The suspension will hurt certain people for a period of time,” said Hla Su Myat. “But if present trends continue, we will face serious urban development problems in the not-too-distant future. That’s why the government responded in the way it did.”

Thant Myint-U, historian and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, told the Irrawaddy: “I’m not against high-rises at all, if their construction is part of a thought-through city plan. The new government is right to pause new construction until a long-term vision and plan for Yangon is properly crafted, discussed, and decided.”

“I think a more compact city, with excellent public transport is best, rather than a sprawling car-based city,” said Thant Myint-U. “High-rises in some areas may be a good thing. What’s not a good thing is to simply build them where there happens to be spare land at the moment, outside of any long term plan.”