Sweet DealsMarch 24, 2005
Unbeknownst to all but the perpetrators/dealmakers – including evidently everybody else in government – Phnom Penh’s central police headquarters was traded off a year ago to a friend of the family, as it were, in exchange for a new headquarters on twice the land in Russei Keo on the edge of town about 9 kilometers from the city center.
While there’s a bit of logic and common sense to the transaction – the police could use a new headquarters and the land is very valuable – the vastly greater part smells like several days old fish in very hot weather.
Primarily, the fact that the deal could take place without the knowledge of the government at large let alone the general population, not to mention given to a prominent member of the establishment with no semblance of a bidding process, brings up a slew of deficiencies in government processes.
But first, the reasons why this move is a poor idea from a planning standpoint. For one thing, the inner city is generally where crime happens and where the largest number of people live so it’s also where the police need to be. The mere presence of police in the neighborhood will serve to deter lawbreakers. No public benefit is served by having them at the edge of town.
It will add to the city’s traffic problems. As a planner type I tend to take for granted certain principles that evidently need exposition. A friend was discussing with friends of his a letter I wrote to the Cambodia Daily in response to the first news of the land transfer. Why would it make a difference for traffic was the general question. Simply put, short trips of one, two or three kilometers to access the present headquarters will be replaced by trips averaging six to ten k’s. Public facilities, as a matter of common sense policy, need to be centrally located to make it as easy as possible for the greatest number of citizens to use them. Moreover, those long trips, in the absence of a public transportation system, will constitute a heavy financial burden for the city’s low income people who need to visit the facility.
Others also questioned my motivation in opposing the development since I now own a bar on the strip. In this case, my personal investment is minor and besides I don’t care all that much about money – though not knowing me you’ll just have to take my word for it. That said, I can’t deny that I’d hate to see the entertainment strip – and its benefit to the city – destroyed, as it almost certainly would be, if the blank wall of the police headquarters were replaced by mid to upscale shop houses. Immediately there’d be complaints about the noise and commotion that goes on into the small hours of the morning, not to mention the friendly and not so friendly gunfire that seems to regularly plague the Heart of Darkness. Depending on the new development’s design, street parking might also be drastically reduced.
Even assuming that redevelopment of the police headquarters – three hectares – 7.5 acres – is a desirable outcome the current finaglings and machinations are obviously not the way to go about it. Fundamentally, the citizenry needs to have some say in what goes there. There needs to be public hearings as well as parliamentary debate; any inner city property that large and prominent is far too important to the future of the city to be given over to the crass whims of the typical developer. Although I kind of like the look of the new shophouses going up all over the city, hackneyed and garishly overdone that they are, that particular space needs to be designed with some vision, maybe as part of some type of international competition.
When you take a cursory look at the space you see one pretty decent old low rise building at the corner of streets 51 and 154 with most of the rest of the lot made up of a polyglot of nondescript, mostly low intensity buildings on a spacious campus. With a little juggling and ingenuity, possibly including one or two modern buildings of five to six stories, all the functions now taking place there could fit on one of the three hectares. If the city really, really wants a department store and some shophouses, then that can easily be done on one more hectare and then you still have one left for public purposes.
How about a public square? One-half hectare – 1.2 acres – would be plenty for a plaza that could accommodate five to ten thousand people for special events, not to mention be a place to go during all the times between. Think of how many people use the green spaces around Sisowath, the art museum and royal palace – they are jammed on weekend evenings. The need for public space is obvious and dire. And think of where the children of Phnom Penh play – on the alleys, sidewalks and streets. One to two hundred square meters would be plenty for a public playground and we still have space for grass, gardens, benches and what have you.
I am prone to cynicism about the state of the world today – as any thinking, compassionate person would have to be – so I don?t hold out fervent hopes that something good will happen to police headquarters, but one must have something elevating to strive for, steep as the path may be.
We expats are liable to get droll and sarcastic about the blatantly underhanded way that many things work in our chosen abode, but every time that starts to happen to me I flash on the much greater magnitude of corruption in the modern developed world I’ve shunned. For now I’ll gladly take Cambodia – especially in place of having to live on the same continent as monkey boy, aka George Dubya – with all its pimples and warts.