OPINION: In Kaohsiung, Politicians Ignore Residents amid Development Frenzy

OPINION: In Kaohsiung, Politicians Ignore Residents amid Development Frenzy
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

None of the Kaohsiung mayoral candidates have committed to developing their city for the people.

Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate to be the new mayor of Kaohsiung, found himself in a bit of hot water last week. An interview he gave back in May suddenly re-emerged online in which he described Kaohsiung as being “old and poor.”

Many in Kaohsiung have understandably taken exception to this. But looking beneath his less than subtle language, Han does have a point.

Kaohsiung is poor. Under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of Chen Chu (陳菊) and her interim successor Hsu Li-ming (許立明), the city has racked up the largest debt of any city in Taiwan. Kaohsiung currently owes a whopping NT$241 billion (US$7.78 billion). That is NT$89,500 (US$2,890) for every single person living in the city.

Kaohsiung is also an old city. Han was trying to make the point about Kaohsiung’s talented young workers departing for Taipei, or pastures even further afield, leaving the city with an aging population. But his comments could just as easily refer to the city itself.

Photo credit: 中央社
The KMT's Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (second from left) is simply telling it like it is when he says his city is 'old and poor.'

Kaohsiung is far from the modern urban metropolises found in the north of Taiwan. And it’s not just the tropical climate that sets Kaohsiung apart from the likes of Taipei and Hsinchu.

Of course, in many ways, this is part of the city’s charm. As an expat, one of the attractions of living in Kaohsiung is that it can still feel quintessentially Taiwanese. You can still disappear into a warren of tiny backstreets and alleys filled with cottage industries and street food stalls. It is still not difficult to go days at a time without meeting another expat here either.

How Kaohsiung is modernizing

Of course, the city is still changing all the time. Homes are being renovated. Businesses change hands. And property developers are working at a frantic pace to build apartment blocks to house the city’s young residents.

At least, that’s what they say. The reality is somewhat different.

As Han rightly noted, many of Kaohsiung’s young leave for university and never come back. For those that do stay, there are limited employment opportunities. Kaohsiung Port is not the large-scale employer it once was.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Kaohsiung Port does not provide the employment opportunities it used to amid modernization and competition from ports in China and South Korea.

The city’s heavy industry that churns out smog which chokes the city throughout the winter months keeps many in gainful employment. But the rest are left to eke out a living in the city’s retail, tourism, or food industries, none of which pay the sort of money needed to buy an apartment in these newly built blocks. Those who want to work for high-tech or international companies have little choice but to move elsewhere for work.

There are signs that this situation is changing. The new high-tech business park near the harbor and exhibition center has created some new jobs. But the rate of change is painfully slow.

Redevelopment is moving at a rapid pace. But throughout the process, little thought is given to the local population. When a location is identified, people are often forced out of their homes at knock-down prices to enable them to be knocked down and the land redeveloped into a tower block.

In one residential area in Kaohsiung’s central Sanmin District, a developer which had identified a site bought about a third of the old houses currently standing there. He then went to the remaining residents and told them the area was being redeveloped, so their houses were worthless and that their lives would be hell for years if they didn’t sell to him. Then, he offered them way below market price for their property.

Fortunately, that particular development never saw the light of day. But many other similar projects do, without a care in the world being given about the local population.

How the needs of residents are always bottom of the pile

Then there is the issue of community facilities. In most countries, developers are required to provide adequate community facilities if they are building a new residential development. This might mean they have to build schools, doctors’ clinics, children’s playgrounds, or other leisure facilities.

In Taiwan, and particularly Kaohsiung, the opposite seems to be the case. The Kaohsiung City Council is not shy about selling off public land to developers, regardless of how important it is to the local community.

I live in the Aozihdi area of Zuoying District, not too far from the HSR Station. Close to my house is a hugely popular play area, with a playground, swings, running track and basketball courts, as well as much needed open green space for kids to kick a ball and families to have picnics. It is the only such facility within walking distance for the residents of this fairly densely populated area of the city.

Credit: Wikipedia
Glorious Zuoying.

This play area is part of the now-disused Longhua Elementary School campus, but it has long been open for public use. However, this old school site, which sits next to Bo’ai Road and the Aozihdi MRT Station, has now been sold off to property developer and insurance company Fubon Life.

You would think that when selling this piece of prime real estate, the City Council would have two priorities. They should be looking to secure the best deal for the Kaohsiung taxpayer and ensure that the development was in the interests of the local community.

But looking into the deal shows that the exact opposite is the case.

Fubon have purchased this entire block on a 70-year lease for just NT$7.8 billion (US$250 million). To put this in context, they are planning to spend NT$200 billion (US$6.46 billion) on the development of the site and expect to make annual profits in excess of this.

So, Fubon has got a great deal on the land! Presumably, therefore, the City Council have ensured that the cherished community facilities that are on the site at the moment will be protected and even improved as part of that deal?

Wrong! Warning signs have already gone up telling local people the site will be redeveloped in its entirety next year.

Instead of a playground, basketball courts, and a skating rink, residents can now look forward to enjoying a department store, hotel, cinema, and an aquarium!

Some people might think that this is a good addition to the local area. But this site is less than a five-minute walk from Kaohsiung’s Arena Department Store, and just a couple of MRT stops from the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store which adjoins Zuoying HSR Station.

Credit: Wiki Commons
Zuoying HSR station is adequately provisioned with shopping malls.

There is admittedly no cinema close by. But, just two blocks from this development, a public car park is also due to be transformed next year by MLD (台鋁官網). They have paid a mere NT$10.3 billion (US$333 million) for a 50-year lease on this fairly substantial plot, with the City Council being promised a floor of offices as part of the deal. So, what else are they going to put on the site? The plans include a shopping center, bookstore, food court, private car park, and, you guessed it, a cinema.

This development has been strongly opposed by local residents who fear significant disruption will be caused by the construction process and fear the already congested local roads will not be able to cope with the increased volume of traffic. But, in a huge slap in the face, the Kaohsiung City Government actually signed the contract with MLD before opening the development up to any form of public consultation. Whether they also told them that they would also be approving a very similar development close by is unclear.

These two development projects, taking place just two blocks apart in what is already a well-developed part of the city, are a clear illustration of just how little consideration is given to either local residents or community needs when such schemes are approved.

Piecemeal redevelopment with no overall strategy or vision

I have written previously in The News Lens about how the Kaohsiung City Council has invested huge sums of public money on a series of infrastructure projects which will bring little or no benefit to the people of the city and leave them burdened with a series of expensive white elephants.

The same failing can also be seen in smaller-scale development projects all over the city.

At the height of election season, there are a number of questions that the current DPP administration should be facing. Why are they selling off public land to developers so cheaply? Why are they granting permission for development projects which offer little or nothing of value to the communities they are being built in? Why is there no real requirement for these developers to consider things like local infrastructure and the opinion of local residents when proposing new projects? What is the overall vision for the redevelopment of the city?

And, most importantly of all, why is the current City Council quite happy to get rid of existing and valued community facilities without any requirement on developers to provide replacements or alternatives?

The KMT may think Kaohsiung is old and poor, but they have no clearer vision of how to make it younger and richer.

If this comes across as a pro-KMT piece in the run-up to the Mayoral election, it should also be added that Han Kuo-yu and his team are asking none of these questions. Their entire campaign is built around a vague pledge about improving the Kaohsiung economy and a whimsical ambition to make Kaohsiung the richest city in the country.

To most Kaohsiung residents, that sounds like an open invitation for developers to build even more of what they want regardless of public opinion or community need.

The KMT in Kaohsiung have no clear policies on how the city should be redeveloped either, which means not only are they not asking the questions, but they are not providing any solutions of their own either. They may think Kaohsiung is old and poor, but they have no clearer vision of how to make it younger and richer.

If any of the five mayoral candidates in Kaohsiung really want to win over the people of this city, then developing and then delivering on some cast-iron policies to address these issues would be a good start.

Radical solutions are not necessarily required. Simple solutions would be more than enough, such as a commitment to consulting local residents, and factoring in their views, before big developments are signed off; creating district-wide development plans to do away with the current piecemeal approach, and a commitment to retain and even invest in public spaces that benefit the people, rather than selling off land cheaply to developers.

But none have come up with a single policy to address this fundamental problem. While that remains the case, it is little wonder that Kaohsiung people are disillusioned with both parties and all candidates as the election approaches. Regardless of who eventually wins, they believe that the likelihood of things changing seems remote.

The depressing thing is, they are probably right.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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