Shaky start for Chao Phraya River promenade project

Govt plan to open up waterfront for public use leaves river's residents, businesses upset

Steve Cafe and Cuisine is a popular home-style eatery in Bangkok, fronting the Chao Phraya River, but it is not easy to get to. Patrons first have to find a small alley and weave their way through ramshackle backyards decked with drying laundry.

It is a typical experience for visitors wanting to reach the banks of Thailand's most famous river. So much of the capital's waterfront is hogged by institutions, condominiums, retailers, restaurants and bars that travelling to adjoining riverfront locations requires circuitous overland routes. Strolling along the water's edge is difficult, with boundary walls of various properties blocking one's way all the time.

But the government hopes to change that by opening up sweeping portions of the waterfront for public use. If a project to create 7km-long promenades on each bank of the Chao Phraya is successful, they will be tripled in length, reaching upriver beyond Bangkok.

National transport officials are also exploring the idea of creating 140km of riverside promenades covering three provinces, apart from Bangkok.

The plan for the Thai capital is the latest by urban planners across Asia to transform neglected riverfronts into civic spaces. Singapore cleaned up its river downtown and created a new business and entertainment district by the Marina Bay waterfront.

Bangkok city officials say they are looking at a reclaimed riverfront in Ahmedabad, India, and a resurrected stream which had been buried under a highway in the South Korean capital Seoul for ideas on how to revitalise the Chao Phraya.

Given the labyrinthian patchwork of interests that has taken root on the waterfront over the Thai capital's 200-year history, this ostensibly simple walkway is an ambitious undertaking, say city officials.

"We will be constructing on one of the most valuable natural resources in the city," Dr Patarut Dardarananda, director-general of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's (BMA) public works department, told The Straits Times.

Hugging the part of the waterfront selected for a pilot phase walkway and cycling path are: a brewery, the central bank, a police station, towering apartments and historic temples, as well as various hotels, bars and restaurants that charge a premium for the view. One of the oldest Christian communities in Bangkok is also located by its banks.

A future Parliament, first conceived through a design competition in 2009, is also being constructed in fits and starts. Upon completion sometime in 2017, it will be topped by a golden stupa and surrounded by greenery.

Initial projections put the cost of the Chao Phraya promenades at 14 billion baht (S$552 million), but the plan immediately faced a storm of protest in May, when the preliminary concept was made public. The original idea to create a 19.5m-wide pathway was derided by architects as narrowing the 200m-wide waterway excessively.

Meanwhile, a recent tender to engage a consultant to do a feasibility study for the pilot phase drew only one bid, requiring the BMA to scrap the exercise and start again under competitive bid rules. Still, Dr Patarut thinks it is possible to start construction of the first stage by October next year and finish by 2018.

Urban designers say they support the project in principle because Bangkok does not have enough quality public space. According to the Thailand Future Foundation think-tank, the capital has just 2.2 sq m of usable green space per person. It is a far cry from the 39 sq m average among 22 cities surveyed in the 2011 Asian Green Cities index.

Architects are concerned Thailand's military government might accelerate the project in order to stimulate the flagging economy.

"You have to do it properly," insists Mr Jedkamchorn Phromyothi, president of the Architect Council of Thailand. Extensive consultations with the community, impact assessments, and crafting a masterplan well before actually designing the path are crucial, said Mr Jedkamchorn, who signed a group letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in August, expressing those concerns.

The BMA appears to be listening. Dr Patarut would not comment on what the future promenade would look like or how much it would cost, pending public consultations.

"We have to ask people what they want us to do," he said.

That might be tricky for businesses like Steve Cafe and Cuisine, which is likely to lose its exclusive access to the waterfront once the promenade is built.

"Our view won't be so pretty anymore," its manager Kateklaw Buranasane told The Straits Times. "And I would have to build new gates to protect against intruders."

Further upriver, in Baan Yuan, one of the oldest Christian communities in the city, residents living in the warren of traditional wooden homes above the water are unsettled by negotiations with city officials trying to relocate them for the project.

"The officials came to measure our homes and asked how many people were living here, so I know they are serious about it," said Ms Pongsi Buasi, 47, who runs a family provision shop.

She wonders if there is another way for her riverside village, where residents still head out fishing in small boats they stow under their homes. "If you conserve our community, we could become a tourist attraction."

Dr Patarut said fewer than 500 people would be relocated for the 14km promenade project, and the riverscape would ultimately be enhanced. "I think we can win people's hearts," he said. "This is a project for everybody."


This article was first published on Nov 10, 2015.
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