The race for the river

business November 17, 2018 01:00

By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Nation Weekend

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Iconsiam is the newest pinnacle of progress on the Chao Phraya, but more is on the way, and some observers are nervous



The spectacular, celebrity-studded opening of Iconsiam, Bangkok’s latest palace of consumerism, lit up the sky over the Chao Phraya River last weekend, further propelling development of the waterfront into the 21st century. 

But if the sprawling mixed-use property represents a fresh peak for commerce and tourism, it also has urban planners and scholars concerned about sustainability, public access to the river and the openness of city planning.

Redevelopment of the river for the 21st century is newly crowned by the vast and spectacular Iconsiam multi-use mega-project. Nation/Rachanon Intharagsa

Bangkok’s development in the past decade has proceeded at such a pace that it is now crowding the riverbanks. Riverfront redevelopment has been booming since 2007, lining the banks with multimillion-baht condos like The River by Raimonland and the Chartrium. The Charoen Phokphand Group converted a clutch of old warehouses into Asiatique the Riverfront. 

The Thonburi side, where Iconsiam is situated, also has the commercial and leisure attraction Lhong 1919.

Other abandoned storage houses and shophouses in Thonburi’s Khongsan neighbourhood have been commandeered by artists and designer collectives for galleries and co-working spaces. Boutique hotels and homestay ventures are luring more tourists to the riverside.

But nothing can match the Bt54-billion Iconsiam “mega-city” for shifting waterfront redevelopment to Thonburi, which among other things represents a triumph for the “public-private partnership” model, capitalising on transportation infrastructure in the form of a public railway and ferryboats. 

Siam Piwat, Magnolia Quality Development Corp and Charoen Pokphand are the mighty partners behind Iconsiam, but much more is coming as the Gold Line extends BTS transit from Thonburi station to the Phra Pok Klao Bridge, paving the way for further projects along the 2.8-kilometre monorail route.

“Waterfront development has become a key urban redevelopment trend around the world and Bangkok is following that trend,” says Asst Professor Apiwat Ratanawaraha, a scholar on the subject at Chulalongkorn University.

“The investment in Iconsiam indicates that city development is now shifting from Bangkok to Thonburi and returning to the river again,” adds Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at the same school. “Thonburi has become a new battlefield for property developers.”

To bring in the tourists and shoppers, Iconsiam contributed about Bt2 billion to the mass-transit rail project, earning in return the right to advertise on the BTS coaches for the next 20 years.

Apiwat has tallied the “potential fiscal effects” of this deal. 

“These include loss of potential revenue from advertising because the BMA gave the concession to Iconsiam for 20 years, and unfair distribution of financial resources due to the government’s eventual subsidies for lower-than-expected ridership on the Gold Line,” he says.

The Chao Phraya River as it was in 1950, bustling with boats on which tens of thousands relied daily. Life magazine photographer Dmitri Kessel took this picture, titled “19 Rice Mill”, showing the mill site across the river now occupied by Iconsiam. Photo courtesy Dmitri Kessel

Iconsiam is also investing on the water, notes Niramon Kulsrisombat, director of the Urban Design and Development Centre (UDDC) at Chulalongkorn. 

While waiting for the Gold Line’s completion, expected within three years, it had struck a deal with the UDDC, the Transport Ministry’s Marine Department and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to modernise river piers.

“Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East when everything was transported by river and canal,” Niramon reminds The Nation Weekend. “In the mid-19th century, transportation shifted to the roads and the piers were left behind.

“Upgrading the piers – which can connect the roads, river and Skytrain – is one of key parts of urban waterfront development. The pier is the link between land and river. In London, Sydney, Venice, the Netherlands and even Vietnam, piers might have cafes, galleries and mini-parks.”

Niramon and her team are currently holding public meetings about ways to improve the Sathorn, Ratchawong, Tha Dindaeng and Ratcha Nevy piers. If no unforeseen obstacles arise, the piers will have a whole new look by next June.

Still, development along the river is dominated by private-sector projects like condos and malls, rather than public spaces such as museums and parkland.

Apiwat, who chairs the master-of-science programme in urban strategies at Chulalongkorn, says much could be learned from overseas about sustainable waterfront development.

“We need to develop a series of master plans that integrate waterfront projects, whether developed by the private sector or the government. Several state agencies and religious institutions could and should contribute more to providing public access to the water.

“Public access to the river doesn’t necessarily mean building broad walkways in all locations,” he says. 

“Good design requires careful consideration of context. We can learn from successful projects like the Boston’s Esplanade and New York City’s High Line, which are actually managed by civil-society groups.”

Pitch and Niramon concur, saying Thonburi’s development in particular requires deeper research into history, community interests and future impacts.