Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building was flooded Saturday morning with nearly 600 Land Management Ministry officials decked in gray uniforms—some tucked into stairwells to pore over paperwork, others entering apartments to measure square footage.
The operation was the latest effort toward transforming the site, built in the 1960s and condemned in late 2014 due to safety concerns. The building is now set for demolition to make way for a 21-story high rise.
Saturday’s survey was meant to lay the groundwork for transactions to clear out residents, who will be given ownership documents that can either be exchanged for a slightly larger apartment in the new building when it’s finished in about four years, or sold for cash.
An official who declined to be named, as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that residents could also sell their new property titles to Arakawa, the Japanese development company overseeing the $80 million project, but said that “if they sell them at too high a price and the company can’t buy them, it will be impossible.”
Officials knocked on 45-year-old Chhit Savoeun’s door at 8 a.m. Her apartment measures 35.5 square meters, she said.
“They said that on Monday they will bring the ownership certificates to us,” she said. Once they do, she plans to sell the space that currently houses her three daughters, husband and older sister for $70,000.
“They asked: What do we want? They’ll build the house for us; why don’t we take it?” Ms. Sovoeun said of the ministry officials. “I said I couldn’t take it—I couldn’t wait.”
But neither option was ideal, she added. If she waits for the new apartment—taking temporary housing behind the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital—there could be unexpected expenses like security and maintenance. In selling, she worries about fair compensation.
According to village chief Hun Sarath, Ms. Savoeun is part of the majority in the building, with 90 percent of the approximately 450 families planning to take a buyout. Some have said they planned to ask for as much as $100,000.
Kheng Ngun, the deputy managing director of Arakawa, said the company had no plans to buy the properties.
“As far as I know, we don’t plan to buy the units. We want to build for them. That’s the intention from the first place,” he said.
“It’s a free market, so they can sell to whoever wants to buy,” he added. “The new buyer will wait and get the new apartment.”
What comes next in the development is up to the government, he said. Ministry of Land Management spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Savoeun said compensation was the only option.
“If they don’t give me money, I would love to wait for it to fall down and kill me someday,” she said of the White Building. “I will not move out, and I will not take the new house.”