After more than two years of uncertainty over the future of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building, plans were unveiled on Thursday for a massive Japanese-backed development project on the site that will cost up to $80 million.
The building—erected in 1963 under the authority of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk as a low-income housing block—houses hundreds of families in the city’s central Chamkar Mon district. In 2014, municipal governor Pa Socheatvong pronounced the decrepit building condemned, but backed off from plans to demolish it amid a public outcry.
The Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning announced on Thursday that Japanese construction company Arakawa would build a new 21-story complex on the site, with expectations that the development would take about four years to complete.
“This project is being studied between the ministry and the Japanese company Arakawa to expand with a budget of around $70 to $80 million,” said a statement posted on the ministry’s website.
Three of the floors will be for parking, one floor for market sellers, five floors for the roughly 450 families currently living in the White Building, and the rest to be used by Arakawa as it pleases, the statement said.
“His Excellency [Land Management Minister] Chea Sophara has asked people to believe in the Royal Cambodian Government and be patient while waiting for the new White Building to be finished in four years,” it said, adding that it would “obviously change the livelihood of the people.”
Arakawa was established by Japanese, British and Cambodian investors, according to a European Chamber of Commerce member list. In 2009, the firm began construction on the $30 million luxury Bellevue Serviced Apartments on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva peninsula.
Company representatives could not be reached on Thursday.
Sem Savuth, 45, who has lived in the White Building since 1982, welcomed the plans and said Mr. Sophara had given a slideshow presentation to 50 residents, outlining plans for the building as well as temporary accommodations for residents while the construction takes place.
Mr. Savuth said residents’ fears of an eviction similar to that of the Borei Keila community, which left about 300 families with no housing resettlement plan after the Phanimex company built only eight of 10 promised buildings, had been alleviated following a meeting with the minister.
“In the past, people were concerned because of cases like the Borei Keila building so they wanted to leave with compensation of $50,000 to $70,000. But now that we have seen the project, we are appreciative and it is going to be built by a Japanese company,” Mr. Savuth said.
Residents were told the temporary resettlement site would be behind the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital, he said.
Sia Phearum, director of land rights NGO Housing Rights Task Force, also attended the meeting and said he was encouraged by the outcome.
“We do not think it will be like Borei Keila, which was built by a Khmer company. It is built by a Japanese company and we think the Japanese company will want to be honorable,” he said.
“They won’t develop on the tears of poor villagers.”