Condos Taking Over The Jungle
From her house in Chang Khian, a north western Chiang Mai neighbourhood at the foothills of Doi Suthep, it takes only minutes for Wanpen Saetia to walk down to the vast, grass covered field where a big new building project is soon to be constructed. The Building Control authorities say they have already given permission to put up three out of the four 7-story condos that are planned to accommodate mainly retirees by the end of next year. All of them will reach 23 metres.
However, according to the Chiang Mai City Plan, no building in this neighbourhood can legally exceed 12 metres, or four stories high.
“But today, you can see buildings of seven, eight or even nine stories here in Chang Khian,” says Wanpen, who is afraid that Chang Khian, and all of Chiang Mai for that matter, is on its way to become another Bangkok: The green environment being gradually taken over by a massive concrete jungle.
Meanwhile new tall condos fill up more and more space in our cityscape; and Wanpen’s worries are shared by many. But since there is more than one side to the story, the stagnant dialogue between investors, scholars, the government and local residents has become a major challenge along with the different interpretations of the law.
The legislation gap
Neighbourhoods like Chang Khian, with its nature-next-door appeal, draw residents like bugs to flypaper. With them follow investors, sniffing the scent of money, by attempting to attract customers with offerings such as a Doi Suthep view. One doesn’t need much of an imagination to see how the story would go without any building restrictions – but even with the restrictions currently in effect, there are obviously problems.
In addition to the national Building Control Act launched in Bangkok 1979, Chiang Mai has its own local law regarding building control. This was issued in 1988. In addition to these, there is the local City Plan, which contains a land-use plan dividing the city into different colour-coded zones, each with varying building restrictions.
The last version of the City Plan expired when we entered year 2010. Since the new City Plan has not yet been approved by the authorities, we are left with an unstable legislation vacuum in which the building industry can wiggle their way around the regulations more easily.
Among the sources Citylife has recently confronted, the height regulations for buildings in, for instance, Chang Khian have varied from 12 to 23 metres. The confusion is pressing, and what would be part of the solution is barely yet in sight:
“I hope we will get to launch the new city plan within a year from now,” says Thanasab Khabunkgam, Vice Mayor at the Chang Puek Building Control Office close to Wat Jed Yod, responsible for, among other areas, the neighbourhood of Chang Khian.
Grotesque as it might seem, this situation is not that unique. According to the Building Control authorities, a gap of several months in between an expired City Plan and the revised City Plan is not unusual. Furthermore, even before the City Plan expired, people seemed to have had different opinions as to how to interpret the law.
Building anything, anywhere
One thing is confusion and misinterpretation of the law, another is total obliviousness.
“Many people don’t even know about the law and restrictions when they start building,” says architect Khongkapan Polnawee from the Department of Building Control in Chiang Mai. “They just assume that they can simply build anything, anywhere.”
Altogether, the different legislative writings on building law in Chiang Mai create an advanced spider web of complicated exceptions, rules and regulations. Building allowances depend on a variety of factors like what area of town you want to build in, the width of the road you want to build on and how tall you plan your building to be.
The Building Control Office of Chiang Mai is divided into two main and four local offices around town. They are responsible for assuring that all buildings are in accordance with the law. The penalty for violating building regulations can be up to 100,000 baht or a maximum of six months in jail, but the execution of the law is rather ‘flexible’.
“Usually, they will just get a warning, and then they will make sure their building project is adapted to the regulations. Sometimes we fine them, but we barely ever put them in prison,” Khongkapan says.
Through their official website, the Building Control Office receives about 4-5 complaints and comments every week according to Khongkapan. Most of them are from people complaining about noise or tall buildings close to where they live.
A standing point that escapes the majority is that if you really want to push for a change, it doesn’t help much if everybody stays exclusively concerned with what happens in their own backyard.
The growing activist groups around Chiang Mai are proof that some residents are already aware of this. Vice Mayor Thanasab recalls how a group of environmental protestors from the Chang Khian neighbourhood crashed the Chang Puek Building Control Office in January this year, expressing their complaints about tall buildings in their neighbourhood.
The anti-big building movement is stirring
Back in Chang Khian, concrete giants in the form of modern condominiums are becoming a more and more common sight along the soi winding like agile snakes through this jungle-green patchwork. And so are the handwritten banners reading ‘Save Chang Khian; Save Your Life; Green… Clean…Peaceful Area’ which you find on houses and fences around the neighbourhood.
“I would like to keep it green like this, with many big trees. And I would like to keep the traditional Thai lifestyle here, so that we don’t have only the Night Bazaar and the pretentious Thailand to show visitors. This here is the real beauty of Chiang Mai. There’s not much like this left anymore,” says Wanpen.
Last January, she joined a growing anti-big building movement opposing the businessmen who raise condominiums in areas where new property development negatively affects the everyday lives of residents. Protesting groups like that of Chang Khian exist and are emerging as a powerful voice against over development.
With building construction, dust and noise will follow. The soi in residential neighbourhoods like this are very narrow and not made for heavy traffic.
“When I enter the Chang Khian area, it is first very warm and humid where there are many people and bigger buildings. When you go further out to where I live, the weather is still cool and nice,” says Wanpen.
One big condominium won’t have a noticeably negative effect on the Chang Khian climate, but a crowd of gigantic buildings can make the pleasant, cooling weather disappear like dew on a sunny morning.
While the Building Control Office rejected this, several other sources told Citylife that they fear the water- and electricity-supply for Chang Khian is not fit for that many more inhabitants.
Money versus regulations
Despite the problems and whether you consider the modern condos eye-candy or not, you have to accept that the city has to grow.
“The businessmen need the new development to make the economy grow. On the opposite side, many scholars want to keep the old city a hundred percent intact. These two groups never cooperate, and so the conflict has come down to who has the stronger voice,” says architect and urban planner Nuttaphong Jaruwannaphong.
“It would actually be better if people were building houses that were taller but still looked more similar to the old characteristics of the town. There is nothing but laws and regulations on one side, then money on the other side.”
The dialogue is stagnant. So where do we go from here? The big businesses should be allowed to build, though only in special, selected areas. Rather than stricter laws, smarter urban planning is the key to combating the challenges of Chiang Mai in the future.
One such challenge is that even the best master-plan, brilliantly arranging the city development like this, would require a much more efficient infrastructure than that of today.
Another issue is corruption, which leads the big building development to continue uncontrollably, even long before the messy gap between the old and the revised City Plans are bridged.
“The underlying problem that we are facing is not really about regulations. The more regulations you have, the less people will realise the cultural value of their city. Instead, they will just turn to bribing. If they really want to build something, they will pay the money and then do it,” Nuttaphong says.
Elleven metres above the law?
Like Nuttaphong, environmental protestor Wanpen doesn’t consider the legal framework, however unclear, the problem per se.
“The problem is that nobody follows it,” she says.
Earlier this year, the Chang Khian protestors collected around 250 signatures against big buildings in their neighbourhood. Approximately 10 percent of the signatures were collected from expat residents in this area. However, Wanpen believes they could have gathered even more signatures if their case hadn’t been this sensitive.
“There aren’t many people who are actively fighting for this. Almost everybody supports us, but many people are too scared to go out there and fight openly. Some were even too scared to sign the petition,” she says.
That this is a sensitive case is also clear to Citylife magazine as we knock the door to the big building project close to where Wanpen lives. They would rather not comment on any of this, but did claim that their building project of 23 metres adheres to the law. Understandable, since they already got their permission from the Building Control Office a couple of years ago.
However, Chang Khian encompasses both a yellow ‘Low Density Area’ and an orange ‘Medium Density Area’ with a special height restriction of 12 metres or less in both the expired and the new, proposed City Plan.
This is partly what drove Wanpen and her protest group to sue several building projects around the Chang Khian neighbourhood earlier this year, but not much came out of it. While the people behind the project mentioned above are still waiting to receive the court’s verdict, they are proceeding with their project. Since they are just preparing to build, they are in the protestors’ focus.
“When the buildings are there, there’s nothing we can do about it anymore, so we want to stop the buildings from coming up,” says Wanpen.
She does have a point. The Building Control Office confirm that any given building permission will still be valid after the new City Plan is approved, even if it means that the project is no longer in accord with standing regulations.
Wanpen Saetia is a made-up name. Citylife has talked to several protestors from around Chiang Mai. Just before this article went to press, we received a strongly worded fax begging for anonymity due to threats to residents.
Thanks to Umaporn Pupphachai for sharing her expert knowledge on this matter.