“At least it is a nice view from the Pudong side,” say our young Shanghainese friends exhibiting some embarrassment. They mean that when one is standing
on the Pudong 浦东 side of the Huangpu River 黄浦江 looking west across to Puxi 浦西, one still
enjoys a fairly pleasant, unobstructed view that ranges across and through
the low level 1930s-era stone buildings on the Bund and the low lying
Shiliupu 十六埔 passenger boat terminal, to the new
skyscrapers along Huaihui middle road 淮海中路 and Nanjing
West Roads 南京西路, and beyond.
Our friends’ embarrassment arises from the fact that the view in the opposite
direction, from the Puxi side to the Lujiazui 陆家嘴 section of Pudong, is now anything but pleasant. In the past two years, side-by-side
building of high rise apartments and office towers virtually on the banks of
the river has created a wall of concrete and glass that has permanently
defaced the riverbank and created a claustrophobic, blocked out aspect for
viewers on the Puxi side.
The blocked out and walled up aspect of Lujiazui is so
pronounced and unsightly, even casual observers and layman sense it and find
it perplexing. For this ten year
resident of Shanghai, it is almost painful to behold.
It is impossible to believe that the plans for Lujiazui
development commissioned by the government from foreign and domestic experts
during the 1990s would have included or permitted such obscenely
inappropriate structures. Is it
possible, then, to believe that the supposedly “responsible” officials could
not imagine the consequences when they overrode or ignored the experts’ plans
and approved the projects?
The officials knew what they were doing, or should have
done. The question is why they
did what they did. For anyone
who has observed the money-driven relationship of developers and local
officials that has powered real estate property growth in Shanghai during the
past fifteen years—and was briefly exposed (then suppressed) last year in the
case of Zhou Zhengyi 周正毅 --the answer is only too obvious.
One of the project scarring the Lujiazui riverfront bears the name of another well-connected developer: Tomson Group 汤臣集团
recall attending in 1995 the opening of the Tomson Group’s golf course
project in Pudong. The project
was a big financial risk for the group, but had benefited from “support” from
the Pudong government. I recall
an official of Pudong remarking that the fortunes of Tomson Group 汤臣集团 and Pudong were intertwined. “We are all in the same boat” (“同舟共济”) the official said, and surely he meant it. At the time Tomson Group was already
reaping benefits from the various “payback” schemes arranged with the Pudong
government in exchange for its large commitments.
But the biggest payback of all will certainly be
Tomson's huge high rise “Riviera” 富都市届汤臣海景花园
development that occupies an incomparable location in Lujiazui directly
opposite the Bund across the river.
The Tomson Group expects to make a fortune on this development, and
even as Shanghai’s over-supplied luxury housing market enters a long overdue
correction, the Group is unlikely to be disappointed. Its excellent “guanxi” 关系 with the officials of Pudong have by now virtually
removed the risk of doing business.
Wonderful for Tomson, but tragic for Lujiazui, Pudong and Shanghai itself. The
Riveria development is clearly too big, too close to the river, and
fundamentally wrong: residential
towers in what should be an class A office and financial district. The towers are so tall, from
the vantage point of a boat cruising the river, they seem almost as tall as
the 88 story Jinmao 金茂大厦 behind them. From the river the complex of six towers extending some
150 meters across blocks the
view of anything behind them.
From the Puxi side, the towers loom like gigantic concrete barricades
guarding some hidden palace from attack.
The Tomson development is one egregious monument to
short-sighted greed and self-interest along the Huangpu’s eastern banks. But it is only one among many. The earliest perpetrator was the
Taiwanese Aurora 振旦 Group whose tasteless metallic
yellow-orange building now blots the riverside just next to the Pudong
Shangri-la Hotel. (The hotel was
actually constructed in style and relatively low-rise in 1996-97. It is now adding a highrise annex
that will add to the blight.)
If a lack of imagination (combined with refusal to
accept planning concepts drafted by foreigners) could explain why the Aurora
was allowed to be built, it takes no imagination to see how destructive to
the Lujiazui skyline has been the result. This being known at the time, how can anyone—particularly
officials of Citibank--possibly justify the decision to build the 44 story
Citicorp Center tower next to it?
If any decision could symbolize the growing arrogance and disregard of
host country environment that Citibank has come to display around the region
and the world during the past ten years, this is it. The contrast with HSBC, which
purchased and acquired naming rights to the properly-scaled and subtly
respectful Shenmao building 森茂大厦 completed
in 1997-98 on a location set well back from the riverfront, is stark.
The latest additions to the mess in Lujianzui are two 40 story highrise apartment developments—Skyline Mansions 盛达金磐 and Pengli 鹏利海景公寓— that now
encroach upon the financial district from the south and seem to extend
virtually to the foot of the Jinmao 金茂大厦. Again, these absurdly overlarge and
overtall developments that extend for hundreds of meters and crowd up to the
riverfront block views from the river and Puxi. The Pengli project comprises five towers of 37 and
31 stories. The Skyline project
is taller. Again, it is clear
that these residential complexes are wrong for the location and for the
environment. Now occupants
of offices on the first 40 stories or so of the Jinmao Building, Pudong’s
signature Grade A, international class location, will have the pleasure of
viewing laundry hung from the balconies of these residential flats, instead
of river views. So why have
these gargantuan, misplaced eyesores been allowed? Only the principals—current and former officials and
developers—would know the answer.
And of course they are not talking.
Moving south along Lujiazui, we encounter one tasteful
and relatively well-designed residential developments, Yanlord Garden 仁恒滨江园, which at least is set back from the riverfront and
offers low rise flats in front, so as to create an aspect of depth when
viewed from the river. On the
riverbank in front, are six low rise office buildings. These buildings are models of what
should have been required—in terms of height restriction--along the entire
riverfront. There is a story of
how developers, after buying the land from the Port Authority 港务局 had planned to construct 40 story office towers. The residents of Yanlord protested to
the city government. Whether it was these protests, or some more subtle
pressure or inducement to the city, but the developers were finally required
to drastically lower the height of their project. One can only wish the same result had been achieved in
other projects along the river.
Just south of Yanlord, a huge section of land is
occupied by the three phases of the Chrysanthemum Garden 菊园,
developed by Capitol Land (formerly DBS Land) from Singapore. This development displays the absence
of concern (or foresight) of Pudong officials residential population density
and disparity between the approved residential and commercial growth and
supporting transportation infrastructure. The disparity can be seen all over Shanghai—indeed it is
becoming emblematic for the city—but there was a chance to head off the
traffic and services bottlenecks in the redevelopment of Pudong (actually,
since all of Shanghai has been a virtual Greenfield for redevelopment, the
opportunity for well-planned improvement has been historic). The chance was squandered. What began in phase one as a
very high density, low-end residential mini-city in beehive architectural
style, moved slightly upscale and slightly more commodious as the development
moved toward the river (the new phases are named 君临天下 and 汇豪天下).
Two developments just south of 菊园 are evidence that—like in many other “gold
rushes”—as the momentum of land deal-making grew in the 1990s, all sense of
proportion and aesthetics seem at one point to have been lost in Pudong. One is a complex—still under
construction--of five massive 40 story apartment towers that seem poised over
the very edge of the riverfront just north of where the location of the
Fuxing Road tunnel. The
other is the seven massive fan-like, crescent-shaped edifices ranging in
height from 49 to 55 stories, and containing thousand of units, of the Shimao
Riverview development 世茂滨江花园.
世茂滨江花园 is a
development covering 275,000 square meters, with a total construction area of
800,000 square meters. It is one
of the largest, if not the largest, residential real estate development in
Shanghai, at least in the “luxury” range. The company behind the development is Shimao Group 世茂集团, Shanghai’s largest property developer. The man behind the Shimao Development
Mr. Xu Rongmao, 徐荣茂 Shanghai’s richest man.
The Shimao development is truly in the grand “Shanghai
style” 海派 over the top, excessive, appearances over
substance tradition. There have
been construction and quality problems with the development, and in a
weakening market sales may slow.
But construction of the over-sized, skyline blotting towers has
proceeded inexorably forward. On
a clear day, as one crosses the Nanpu Bridge from Puxi and looks left (north)
the mountain-like structures appear like out-sized play buildings on a
monopoly board. From the Puxi
riverside, the line-up of the six buildings that are finished or under
construction, appears like a screen intended to hide something of interest
And indeed, in a sense the massive edifices that now
blot and crowd Pudong’s Lujiazui area are hiding something. They
are hiding a system that enables developers and officials to collude in
secret and without review for short-term personal gain, at the expense of the
residents of the city.
For a while, as the city was still developing, this seemed to matter little. Now,
however, as the detrimental effects are increasingly clear, as is their
irreversibility, even Shanghai’s proud local residents cannot be other that
dismayed and saddened by what has come to pass.
The author is president of S.M. Harner and Company, a financial services
consultancy, and a ten year resident of Shanghai.