To any visitor driving into Colombo from the Bandaranaike International Airport, the view is not only fascinating but virtually breathtaking. I am not talking of a picturesque city. Yes, green patches with tree-lined streets – now thankfully much of the heaps of earlier uncollected garbage have been removed – make it more pleasant than some [...]

Business Times

Mourning over zoning


To any visitor driving into Colombo from the Bandaranaike International Airport, the view is not only fascinating but virtually breathtaking.

I am not talking of a picturesque city. Yes, green patches with tree-lined streets – now thankfully much of the heaps of earlier uncollected garbage have been removed – make it more pleasant than some capitals in South Asia.

However, what you also see is the number of new buildings and high-rises that have sprung up over the past few years, with more under construction to the extent that the capital’s skyline would be tightly-packed with high-rises, and, in the process achieve many firsts like the Chinese-built Lotus tower near the Colombo Port said to be the tallest in this part of the world.

There is also the elegant Altair 2-tower high-rise with one gently resting in a curved shape on the other tower and the Cinnamon Life mixed development property designed by the famous Sri Lankan-born architect Cecil Balmond, being seen as the second greatest Sri Lankan architect after Geoffrey Bawa to mark his imprint in the world of architecture. The city’s Beira Lake is also getting a face-lift in the process with nicely-paved walkways.

Then there are the several dozen apartment buildings under construction. The frenetic pace of developments, construction-wise, gives the impression of a country in a hurry, playing catch-up with cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Mumbai after missing out due to the scourge of terrorism and conflict (1983-2009).
Interesting! But are we doing it right? Are we reaching for the stars with 5-star and 7-star luxury living status (the Achilleion residential complex coming up opposite Majestic City in Bambalapitiya) without dealing with the basics?

The recent collapse of a building at Wellawatte triggered panic. Given the number of new buildings under construction, there is much suspicion that plans are not being authorised according to specified regulations. Concerned authorities spoke of dozens of buildings not following proper safety procedures and announced plans to cancel the permits given to these properties. Like a new broom sweeping the place, the sweeping statements don’t seem to be followed by action. Not unusual in Sri Lanka anyway and like Kussi Amma Sera – parroting singer Sunil Perera’s ‘Lankawe’ song — would say, ‘Lankawe ehema thamai Mahattaya, Ehema thamai’.
The Business Times has been off the blocks in the past six months with some soul-searching articles on the rapid pace of high-rise development across the city and in particular the suburbs of Colombo – Wellawatte, Nugegoda, Nawala, Dehiwela and Mount Lavinia – and resident committees complaining of illegal constructions accompanied by inconvenience and other harassment of residents including health hazards.

The problem of high-rises is not only confined to residents living close to such developments. It is also beginning to worry the Central Bank about a real estate bubble in the making with the banking regulator informing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it was considering prudent measures to limit lending to the construction and real estate sectors – as a precaution against loan books being filled with unpaid loans as people scramble to buy apartments without considering their ability to pay the costly monthly payments.

Leave that aside, many readers have written to the Business Times about the blatant violation of construction laws with one, Prof. Prianka Seneviratne, saying in a note: “I have been a college professor and a practising civil engineer for 40 years, and worked in 38 countries in three continents. I have never seen such blatant violation of every rule of law and obligations by all parties to construction contracts anywhere, except in India and Bangladesh”.

Such a sweeping comment we hope would galvanise the authorities to think afresh and examine all the building permits issued and ensure that the rules are followed. However, that’s easier said than done in a Sri Lanka that follows an “Ehema Thamai” attitude by the authorities with one exception: If you oil the palms of officials, may be they would work more diligently. You can call it ‘incentive payments’!

These are worrying times for Sri Lankans who live in apartment buildings without, for example, a proper fire escape with another professional engineer – in an article appearing in today’s Business Times — asking whether there is a ‘Refuge Floor’ for every 10 floors in all super high-rise buildings as per new regulations. Potential buyers in future luxury living environments should be more concerned about fire safety measures rather than beautiful bathrooms, elegant living spaces and nice plants! These, eventually, won’t protect you against fire or any other hazard.

Leaving this all aside, I was intrigued by a comment from Kussi Amma Sera’s 18-year-old son, Panduka. Visiting from their village during the school vacation, Panduka – reading some stories about harassment of residents from apartment and commercial buildings and tutories and being a nuisance to other residents who have lived for decades in peace, calm and tranquillity – asked: “Sir, aei mey building wena thenaka danne naththe? Gewal thiyane areas-wala nethuva.”
He has a good point. What he is referring to is the science of proper zoning of the city and suburbs where commercial buildings, office space and education institutions don’t come into conflict with living spaces…….spaces where residents have nice walkways, cycle paths and ample parking, spaces where roads with heavy traffic flows are not disrupted by parking slots or irregular parking on roadsides.

The Colombo Financial City (former Port City) could be a future model to follow, as we hear, with all these such as walkways, cycle paths and areas restricted to walking and no vehicular traffic being included.

Colombo and other cities woefully lack a proper zoning plan. Over the years, buildings (initially tutories and in recent years apartment complexes) authorized by corrupt municipal officials have broken the peace of residential areas. These areas have been, without any proper plan, broken into semi-residential (which provides a foothold to commercialisation) and eventually inconvenience residents so much that they are forced to sell, often ancestral properties, and move elsewhere. Waiting in the wings as inconvenience creeps in, are the utterly, unconcerned developers to buy properties from reluctant sellers.

These developments, apart from inconveniencing residents, are – as the College Professor says “90 per cent of these new sites are non-compliant with regulations”.
“Contractors and architects are not only non-compliant with the clients’ requirements, but also with their general obligations such as noise, vibration, damage to property, discharge of waste, etc. The reason is that the issuers of the licence to contractors and the issuers of building permits do not have penalties for non-compliance,” she said.

While leaving you with these thoughts of a proper zoning plan for Colombo and the suburbs where everyone – residents, commercial developers, educational institutes – must enjoy their individual and institutional rights, I was further intrigued by another comment from Panduka: “Sir, apey gamme api ida denne neha mewagey thakkadi weda korrana. Minissu ekathuwela virudda wenawa.”

Resident committees like the Mount Lavinia Residents’ Committee which is making waves with its action against unauthorised buildings and harassment to residents and triggering new committees in other areas would hopefully – even at this late stage — lead to a proper zoning master-plan for Colombo and the suburbs where everyone can live in peace and tranquility. Less stress improves productivity. So there is an economic benefit to the country too, which makes such an exercise imperative. These are also some thoughts for the new city fathers (and mothers with powerful female politicians planning to contest) with local elections due in December or early January.

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