The Battle of Makkasan: Green space versus commerce in the heart of Bangkok

The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has harbored plans to transform a 500-rai (800-square-kilometer) plot of land in its possession into a new Bangkok landmark for more than a decade. In its latest attempts to bring the proposed “Makkasan Complex” to fruition, the SRT has upset environmentally conscious Bangkok residents, who fear that they will forever lose one of the last green spaces in the inner city. A battle has developed between the two parties, one of whom wants to transform Makkasan into a hub of iconic architecture and high-end shopping, the other of whom thinks the complex could better serve Bangkok residents by remaining in its natural state

Makkasan Complex’s implications extend far beyond the effect they will have on a relatively slim swath of the city landscape. The project mirrors Bangkok’s wider struggle for quality of life within the urban center; it casts light on the ill-advised planning under which Bangkok has suffered for decades and the incessant struggle of the SRT to remedy its toxic balance sheets.

Future at stake: Designers imagine what Makkasan could be

Homes in the Heart of Bangkok 

The SRT’s 296-rai train repair plant, within its 500-rai Makkasan plot, is not open to the public. It is diligently watched by security guards and encircled by an eight-foot-tall anti-theft fence. The easiest way to observe the large green area is by looking down to the left while riding the Airport Rail Link from Ratchaprarop to Makkasan stations. From above, you will see humongous buildings, stretching the length of several train cars, halfway concealed by a canopy of tropical trees. Numerous broken train cars are left rusty and abandoned to the east of the rail depot, leading its neighbors to refer to the facility as “the train cemetery.”

If you exit the Airport Rail Link at the Makkasan stop, a sign prompts you to head towards Asoke-Dindaeng Road on the right hand side where you can connect to the underground Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which later interchanges with the Bangkok Mass Transit (BTS) system. If, after disembarking at Makkasan, you opt to head left instead of right, you can explore Northern Bangkok via Ratchadapisek Road.

However, during a visit to the site last week, I went in neither direction. Instead, I walked along the train track to Nikom Makkasan Road. Along both sides of the road sit old wooden and concrete structures that are home to around 1,200 SRT staff families. These buildings were constructed in the early twentieth century, their intention being to house workers who serviced SRT trains.

Auntie Aum, 55, whose real name is not disclosed due to political reasons, was deep-frying chicken at the food stand in front of her house when I approached her. She has conducted this business for eight years in an effort to generate income for her family in addition to her husband and son’s salaries. Aum wedded a Nakhon Nayok man and followed him here in 1988 after he landed a job as a mechanic with the SRT.

“I love living here,” Aum grinned, flipping her chicken breasts in the boiling pot. “I can go to the market easily, to the mall easily, to everywhere easily, actually.”

Aum told me that she has been aware of the SRT’s intention to develop the area for commercial purposes for a long while. Rumors of impending development spread across the community from time to time, prompting residents to prepare for abrupt changes to their living situations.

“I bought a house in Nakorn Nayok,” Aum said. “I know that this is not my land. But I have lived here for so long that leaving it would sadden me. Still, I have five years more before my husband will retire from the SRT.”

In her case, Aum has been privileged to stay in the expensive city-center property without paying a satang. But for the SRT’s younger generation of workers, enjoying an urban existence at Makkasan may not be an option.

Earlier this year, the King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) submitted to the SRT the draft final report for a new “train town” in Saraburi’s Kaeng Khoi district. With an initial estimated budget of THB8 billion, this upgraded version of the SRT’s Makkasan area is slated for construction 18 months from now, in a province 100 kilometers north of Bangkok. Once finished (in 2015), the Saraburi complex will effectively make the SRT staff community disappear.

The KMITL’s six-month study will soon be sent to the Transport Ministry and the Cabinet for final review. The SRT promised its employees that the brand new, 100-rai facilities would provide them with better living through modern architecture. But the SRT has failed to ask its staff if they would choose new residences in Saraburi or old homes in the capital.

Like Aum, Supranee, another Makkasan resident, has been aware of the impending development plans but is reluctant to say whether she will move to the new Kaeng Khoi town or follow Aum’s lead and construct a new home elsewhere. The 50-year-old Nakhon Ratchasima native uses the ground floor of her house as a snack and drink shop, as well as a place to take care of her eight-year-old grandson during school breaks.

“This place is full of memory,” Supranee says of her two-story home. “Some houses are even twice my age. Will they really destroy this site?”

I said I didn’t know, and gave her a brief explanation of the SRT’s plans to replace the maintenance compound with a commercial complex.

“I am 100% opposed to the plans,” she said, pointing to the peak of Baiyoke Sky Hotel, Thailand’s tallest building. “We already have a lot of hotels and malls. And I think we should not cut down those trees. It took decades for them to grow this big.”

Bangkokians in Green Battle

A large number of Bangkokians share Supranee’s opinion.

This grass roots opposition to Makkasan’s development was made evident when Punlarp Punnotok and Jatuporn Tansirimas – leaders of the Facebook campaign group Makkasan Hope – mobilized the online crowd to support a online petition. In less than nine days, Makkasan Hope was able to convince over 10,000 Thai citizens to lend their digital signatures to the cause.

One of these signatories is 41-year-old Piyatad Tabmanee, who was born and raised in the Makkasan area. Piyatad sold his house adjacent to the SRT’s depot to a real estate developer last year for fear that his property would be alienated by a new commercial complex being built nearby.

“While I was staying there, I once rode a motorcycle to the Airport Link Makkasan that did not operate fully,” said Piyatad. “Looking down the SRT’s large, green space, it gave me relaxation. It made me feel very close to nature.”

In an appeal that will be forwarded to Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt and SRT Governor Prapas Chongsanguan by April 10, Makkason Hope lays out three major requests: 1) that Makkasan be developed to serve the public good, not commercial interests, 2) that green space be preserved as much as possible and 3) that a public hearing be held to solicit the needs of Bangkok residents before proceeding with the development of the land.

“It started with one Facebook status update in late November,” said Punlarp, who works during the day as a design director at a brand communications agency. “I wrote what I thought the Makkasan area should be. It was shared over 900 times in less than 24 hours.”

The overwhelming popularity of Punlarp’s post prompted him to register an official public page with Facebook in order to call for the site to be turned into public parks and museums. Makkasan Hope, the resultant page, drew many interested volunteers who joined hands with Punlarp in a campaign they hope will enhance the quality of urban life.

“I tried to think of the reason behind the campaign but the answer is in fact very easy. I just want to have a better life,” said Jatuporn, who first volunteered as a Facebook page administrator and has informally become the group’s spokesperson. “How many Bangkok residents are really satisfied with the quality of life Bangkok has to offer? For people around me, it is zero. No one really thinks that they have a good quality life, as far as I know.”

If quality of life is related to the amount of green space in a city, then the facts back up Jatuporn’s claim. According to the 2011 Asian Green City Index – a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Siemens – Bangkok ranked fifth, out of six Southeast Asian cities surveyed, in terms of green space per city dweller. The city’s green space per capita came in at a meager 3.3 square meters.

By this metric, the Thai capital woefully fails to measure up to its neighbors.

Singapore has 66.2 square meters of green space per person; Kuala Lumpur has 43.9 square meters, Hanoi has 11.2 square meters and Manila 4.5 square meters.

Bangkok beats only Jakarta, which scores a measly 2.3 square meters per person, in this particular rubric. Not only did its regional neighbors best Bangkok in this poll, but the city’s amount of greenery is almost three times less than the international standard of nine square meters per person set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“I admit that Bangkok has more public parks but none of them is a qualified quality space,” Jatuporn stated. “A three-rai park is not what I am talking about.”

The largest public park in Bangkok is Suan Luang Rama IX Park in the Prawet district. Despite its remarkable size of 500 rai, the park’s location makes it difficult to visit.

From Siam Square, one must travel 20-kilometers to reach Suan Luang Rama IX. The Makkasan area, on the other hand, is only three to four kilometers from the city center. Suan Lumpini is comparable to the Makkasan site in terms of distance from Bangkok’s urban hub, but its size of 360-rai means that it would be dwarfed by a 500-rai, Makkasan park.

SRT’s Debts

Thanks to its spaciousness and accessibility, the Makkasan area has come to bear the brunt of the SRT’s hopes for economic salvation.

A Terms of Reference (TOR) being drafted under current SRT Governor Prapas Chongsanguan describes a use for the Makkasan area in which public space plays a minority role.

Out of the Makkasan complex’s total space of nearly 500 rai, roughly 100-200 rai on the edge will be saved for road construction to ease traffic congestion. This area will also serve as housing for an expressway entry and exit. In the middle 300 rai, designated for commercial uses, around 15-20%, or 45-60 rai, will be maintained for use as parks or museums.

“We have over THB100 billion in debts accumulated over many decades,” the 57-year-old governor told reporters. He called on the Makkasan campaigners to empathize with the SRT’s financial situation: “The SRT is a state enterprise that aims to serve low-income citizens. Out of some 260 train services we currently provide, merely 70 of them charge passengers. The free rides are offered in line with the government’s policy.

The SRT’s chronic losses, plus another THB60 billion in pension payments, form a major concern for Prapas, who claims that the SRT has not received enough attention from policymakers.

“The improvement of the SRT has never been listed as a policy in the National Economic and Social Development Plan since the first edition,” said Prapas. “We have used the same rails and locomotives. We haven’t hiked fares for third-class passengers since 1985. We have not hired new staff since 1999. It is like the SRT has been frozen in time.”

Opponents, however, believe that the SRT’s financial coma is attributable to mismanagement of its own assets. Plagued with accusations of corruption and a bureaucracy beset by red tape, the SRT has had difficulty leveraging its significant extant resources. At present, the organization owns 234,976.95-rai worth of land across the country, 36,302.19 rai of which is open for commercial development. Around 10% of that potential asset is located in the greater Bangkok area. The Makkasan controversy is a result of the SRT’s effort to exploit these estates in order to clear its staggering debt load.

The SRT’s indebtedness came into the public eye in 2001, during the first term of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Committed to returning the SRT to solvency, Thaksin asked the Finance Ministry, in 2003, to study ways in which to reorganize the enterprise as well as to transfer its debts, which then entailed only THB50 billion, to the Treasury Department. The transfer did not succeed and the SRT instead decided to focus on the management of its primary properties.

In 2004, then SRT Governor Chitsanti Thanasophon hired Thai Engineering Consultants Company Limited and Design Concept Company Limited to draft the TOR of the Makkasan Complex project. Completed in 2006, the THB20 million report separated the 571-rai scale of land into three zones with an investment outlay of THB195,833 million. The three-phase plan featured twin 99-storey towers, named “Bangkok Towers,” office spaces, convention centers, serviced apartments, condominiums and hotels.

Two years later, under the governorship of Yutthana Thapcharoen, who oversaw the SRT from 2008 to 2012, the Makkasan Complex scheme was reinvigorated, thanks to the arrival of the Airport Rail Link in August 2010. The SRT paid another THB11 million to the same two companies in exchange for a second TOR, which was based on concepts similar to the first.

The new TOR indicated that the value of the project totaled THB281,248 million, a 43% increase, and the successful bidder would be granted a 34-year lease.

In February 2010, the SRT received another final draft, but yet again failed to actualize it.

In mid 2012, shortly before Prapas took over the SRT, then-Transport Minister Pol Lt Gen Chat Kuldilok brought up the project. He speculated that the investment value would exceed THB300 billion in the third TOR.

World Class Makkasan

For the new TOR, Prapas sought assistance from Dr Boonsom Lerdhirunwong, Dean of Faculty of Engineering, Chulalongkorn University. He reiterated that the Makkasan Complex must possess unique characteristics that would make it a new landmark of Bangkok.

“Bangkok does not yet have a landmark,” said Prapas. “Central World is still too small to hold big, important events such as the New Year countdown or the Songkran Festival.

Prapas’s vision is to have a classic-looking structure that can remain popular for several decades, much in the manner of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands or Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers.

Pongkwan Lassus, Vice President of the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA), fails to see such a grandiose future for the Makkasan property.

“This development plan is very traditional and outdated,” he said. “The new building will never have a world-class standard but reach up to only a certain level. Malls are meaningless. Why don’t we use our heritage as the selling point?”

Pongkwan may have been referring to Makkasan’s train repair plant, which won the ASA’s Best Conservation Award in 2006. The redbrick structure was built in 1922 and has become one of Thailand’s most widely renowned “industrial heritages.” Its defendants argue that it pays homage to King Rama V’s railway initiatives and provides a living link to Thailand’s development during the Industrial Revolution.

“I gave them the award, hoping that they would realize its importance,” stated Pongkwan, also a board member of the ASA’s architectural conservation committee. “In a western country, this building would have been registered as a historical site long time ago.”

Pongkwan, who lived for 10 years in France, suggested that the SRT use the urban development model of the Bercy neighborhood in the east of Paris. The former warehousing area for wine has been urbanized in a manner that conserves its older structures, making it one of the most distinctive urban areas in Europe.

“This is not an empty land,” Pongkwan warned. “The TOR needs to be well thought out. To completely demolish the site would simply mean that this place has no history.”

Sopon Pornchokchai, President of Agency for Real Estate Affairs, proposed that the SRT build only a few very tall buildings in order to preserve both Makkasan’s green space and heritage.

“We can follow Singapore,” said Sopon. “Build the main building in the middle and surround it with greenery. The bidder can consult with the BMA’s City Planning Department for the height of the building.”

But all in all, it is the SRT’s job to make decisions regarding Makkasan’s fate. Sopon estimated that one rai of the Makkasan property is worth around THB200 million, a valuation that, if correct, would mean that the entire property is worth nearly THB100 billion, or roughly USD3.4 billion.

In light of this fact, Suppon insists “to force the SRT to keep the whole area green, campaigners need to own the rights by buying the land.”

Makkasan for all?

The Makkasan Complex has plans to call for development bids within the year, pending the approval of the SRT’s board, the Transport Ministry and the Cabinet.

The direction in which the project is headed is still a matter of open debate.

Representing the SRT’s standpoint, Prapas highlights the enterprise’s financial situation and his desire to build a Bangkok landmark as the primary motives for rushing the project. “You have to be fair with us,” he said.

But Bangkok residents, who crave greenery, want to participate in the land use planning process from the start, claiming that regardless which path the project takes, the new Makkasan structure will affect them in one way or another.

For Makkasan residents like Auntie Aum and Supranee, this latter assertion certainly holds true. They, like all Bangkokians, will have to wait and see whether they are participants in, or victims of, the city’s march toward urbanization.

Photos: Kajonsak Intarapong and Praj Kiatpongsan

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