|Memory lane: Historic houses on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in District 5, many of which are scheduled to be upgraded. — VNS Photos Hoang Hai
|Ancient households: Cho Lon district is about to get a facelift, but will stay in character. Proposed planning regulations put a limit on renovations and new construction in keeping with the era and style of the time.
|Ravaged by time: Trieu Quang Phuc Street in District 5 had old houses that were demolished to make way for new buildings.
|Colourful area: A corner of Chinatown's bustling district where business has been carried out over the decades.
Historic buildings in HCM City's Cho Lon area are slated to be renovated but house owners are concerned about the proposal's impact on their lives and businesses. Xuan Hiep
Thousands of families living in parts of HCM City's districts 5 and 6 are divided in opinion over the feasibility of a project to renovate the country's largest former Chinatown, commonly known as Cho Lon (Big Market).
Under the proposal, residents in the conservation area would be asked to refrain from adding new floors or upgrading houses that are considered historic.
Any newly built houses would also have to be similar in style to the older architecture.
As proposed, the height of houses would be strictly regulated within a 50m area. In addition, large advertising billboards, which could conceal old houses, would not be permitted.
The Old Quarter, known as Cho Lon, lies on the west bank of the Sai Gon River, consisting of the western half of District 5 and several adjoining neigbourhoods in District 6.
The city's renovation proposal has met with mixed reviews.
Many houses are already in such bad condition that they are at risk of collapse, according to one local resident who declined to be named. The 55-year-old man, who has lived on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in District 5's Ward 10 for more than 30 years, said the city authorities had not released details about the proposal.
Residents, he said, were afraid that their businesses would be affected or that they would have to move.
Vu Ngoc Phat, who lives on Luong Nhu Hoc Street in District 5's Ward 11, said: "We totally support a project that conserves and rehabilitates old houses, pagodas and temples in the Old Quarter that have cultural and historical value. But I think the authorities should very carefully consider its impact because the lives of thousands of people in the preservation area could be affected."
Another District 5 resident, Nguyen Thi Yen Nga, who lives on Bai Say Street, said the authorities could reduce the density of the Old Quarter by developing policies to help people to move to other places.
A traditional-medicine shop owner on Trieu Quang Phuc Street in District 5 said the project should not proceed if the authorities could not ensure that people's lives would improve.
Many other residents expressed concern that the project could be delayed while the city irons out details of its implementation.
Huynh Thi Thao, chairwoman of District 5's People's Committee, praised the project goals but recommended that the city solicit opinions from local residents to ensure that their lives would not be affected.
The project, titled "Ideas for urban design for conservation and rehabilitation of the Cho Lon Old Quarter", was proposed by the city's Department of Planning and Architecture. It has been submitted to the HCM City People's Committee for approval.
The 68ha preservation area, which is home to about 440,000 residents, is located in wards 10, 11, 13, 14 in District 5 and wards 1 and 2 in District 6.
The area is bordered by Tan Da, Nguyen Trai, Phu Dong Thien Vuong, Hang Bang Canal, Thap Muoi, Le Tan Ke, Bai Say streets and Vo Van Kiet Avenue.
The city, which has received consultation from the Spanish-based DCU Company, is focusing on three main areas during the pilot period, with the first work done on a total of 14 ha.
The first area includes the famous Binh Tay Market area and surrounding streets, covering a total of 4.2ha and bordered by Thap Muoi, Le Tan Ke, Hang Bang Canal, Bai Say and Tran Binh streets.
Under the plan, Hang Bang Canal would be dredged and the area surrounding it would be upgraded to become an attractive tourist spot.
The public area around the Binh Tay Market would be enlarged, with the square in front of the market expanded to create more space for pedestrians and reroute traffic lanes to ease congestion while ensuring safety for pedestrians and tourists.
The second area, covering 4.6-ha, contains many temples, pagodas and clubhouses with Chinese characteristics.
The Tam Son Pagoda, Minh Huong Temple and Phu Nghia Clubhouse are a few of the more well-known sites.
This area is bordered by Phu Dong Thien Vuong, Nguyen Trai, Luong Nhu Hoc and Tran Hung Dao streets.
Nguyen An and Phu Dinh streets would become pedestrian-only, while traffic volume would be restricted on Trieu Quang Phuc, the main street in the area.
|Walking street: Phu Dinh and Nguyen Aùn streets in District 5 will be for pedestrians only under HCM City's project to preserve the old part of Chinatown.
If the renovation proposal is approved, work would first begin on these two streets.
Urban development would be the focus of the pilot phase's third area, which covers 5.2ha and is surrounded by Hai Thuong Lan Ong, Van Kiep streets and Vo Van Kiet Avenue.
Construction of high-rise buildings would be allowed on Vo Van Kiet Avenue, while the height of construction would be strictly regulated on other streets.
Underground parking lots and pedestrian-only streets would be created, and more green space would be set aside for the area around Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, deputy director of the city's Department of Planning and Architecture's Architecture Research Centre, said Cho Lon had for years faced a lack of space for pedestrians, green areas, a lack of parking lots and poor services, all of which do not attract tourists.
Because many streets had been widened in the area, old buildings had been affected. Many owners had added too many floors to their houses, while billboards were concealing historic structures, Tuan said.
He said that authorities must begin to carefully consider the issuance of construction licenses for the area that is slated for conservation. One of the plans' main aims is to attract more local and international tourists to the area, according to city officials.
Other major benefits would be better living conditions, more pedestrian-only streets and increased value of houses in the area.
To encourage people to restore their homes or buildings, the city government has promised to offer partial financial support to owners by waiving business taxes and offering low-interest rate loans.
Government agencies involved with the project would also set up a team to manage the budget for the conservation work.
The Department of Planning and Architecture has submitted a proposal for approval of the project to the city's People's Committee, which will then be responsible for including detailed information on the amount of capital needed, duration of the project, the specific project area, and the agencies and companies that would be involved.
Architect Nguyen Truong Luu, vice-chairman of the HCM City Architects Association, and a member of the assessment council of the project, said the number of existing old houses in the area had declined because of rapid urbanisation, or disrepair.
Most of the historic structures were built according to Chinese architectural styles popular at the end of the 19th century and in the 1920s, he said, adding that conservation must go together with socio-economic development to ensure the city's sustainable development.
Luu emphasised that conservation efforts should strive to maintain the "soul" of every street in the area, especially Luong Nhu Hoc Street, where many lantern shops exist, and Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, with its many herbal medicine shops. — VNS