White Building Families Block Attempt to Brace Cracked Wall

More than 50 families of Phnom Penh’s “White Building” who worry the aging building may collapse after a crack opened up on its south wall on Sunday prevented the construction company they hold responsible from erecting a steel support structure Tuesday fearing it would fail.

The iconic building, a social housing project commissioned by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1963, was condemned and slated for demolition in September. City Hall reversed its decision after a public backlash.

Residents of Phnom Penh's 'White Building' on Monday inspect a crack that shot up the inside of the apartment block's south-facing wall on Sunday evening. (Matt Walker)
Residents of Phnom Penh’s ‘White Building’ on Monday inspect a crack that shot up the inside of the apartment block’s south-facing wall on Sunday evening. (Matt Walker)

But foundations being dug for a new hotel less than 6 meters from the dilapidated tenement block have shaken residents’ faith that it is safe to inhabit and left them with no confidence in efforts to reinforce the wall by Cambodian developer Rithy Samnang, who bought the land from 7NG.

When construction workers arrived Tuesday morning, angry residents intervened and said that their plans for the wall amounted to little more than papering over a life-threatening structural breach.

Commune chief Khat Narith met with 30 individuals from the families to discuss their concerns.

“During the meeting, the residents said they would not accept the iron supports as a solution and wanted the developer to offer them a suitable price in exchange” for their apartments, he said, adding that some residents had already evacuated the building.

“If the company owner offers a suitable price I think that would be a good solution for residents because I can see the building is weak, so it is likely something bad will happen,” he said, adding that City Hall would discuss the option with the developer.

Keurt Sareth, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, said the ministry was addressing the problem and that the steel supports were only a temporary safety measure.

“We are still waiting on results from an analysis that will determine why the crack happened, and in the meantime the company will place steel supports to prevent the building from shaking,” he said.

But some residents said that would not be enough.

“The iron bars cannot protect the building. It is too old, so it will collapse,” said 53-year-old Pich Chanthy, who moved out after 32 years at the building. She said she would only settle for a payout.

“They need to compensate us,” she said.

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