Massive Crack in ‘White Building’ Widens

A four-story crack in the south-facing side of Phnom Penh’s aging “White Building”—which first appeared in early February as a pile driver broke up earth inside an adjacent construction site—widened over the weekend, shortly after a meeting between worried tenants and the firms behind a planned hotel next door.

Construction of the hotel has been stalled since the crack spread up the height of the iconic apartment block on the evening of February 1.

Keurt Sareth, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, said Monday that two of four mirrors he had installed over the fissure last month—to serve as an indicator of further damage—broke on Saturday.

Mr. Sareth, however, attributed the crack’s expansion to the generally decrepit state of the iconic building, a social housing project commissioned by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1963.

“There are two floors where the mirror broke,” he said. “The two floors of the building expanded naturally.”

Mr. Sareth said he was contacted last week by Biaxis, the Malaysian construction company contracted by local businessman Rithy Samnang to build the hotel to the south of the White Building, and the firm the residents blame for the damage. He said Biaxis wants the residents to allow it to install a temporary steel support wall in the foundation of the hotel that would fortify both buildings.

“The residents do not understand that the steel will protect the [White] Building,” he said, adding that the construction company told him that if the ministry could not convince the 52 families living along the side end of the building to allow the steel wall to be installed, the firm would give up and fill in the foundation it had already dug.

On Friday, however, members of those families met directly with Biaxis and a representative for Mr. Samnang to discuss the proposal, according to residents, who are eager to move out of the White Building, which they now consider structurally compromised.

Sea Vouch Eng, 48, said the companies agreed to consider buying up the apartments occupied by the 52 families if they allowed the steel wall to be installed and construction to resume—a promise followed promptly by a threat.

“They said that if we don’t agree…to [allow them] to build the steel, then their insurance will not take action if the [White] Building cracks or collapses,” she said.

Ms. Vouch Eng said she and the residents rejected the firm’s offer.

“I didn’t understand at all when the Land Management Ministry told us about the technique of the steel” last month, she said. “If someone, an engineer, came to explain, it would be better.”

Neither Biaxis nor Mr. Samnang could be reached Monday.

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