There are solutions for Ashton Asoke
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There are solutions for Ashton Asoke

The Ashton Asoke Condo saga illustrates how things can go wrong in real estate development projects. For the consumer, it was a nightmare that the Supreme Administrative Court decided earlier this month that the condo which had been built a few years back and sold to them in the end lacked a proper entrance which meant its permit was revoked. For investors, it was a reversal in fortune, not to mention a PR disaster.

For society at large, the approval process raises big questions about how the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) approves permits for developers -- after all, the plaintiffs and community residents had objected to the project's entrance even before City Hall and Wattana district issued the permits. The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA), which expropriated the land to build the entrance to an underground train station right on the project's doorstep, remained silent on the question of how it allowed the land -- expropriated from state infrastructure -- to be used for private and commercial purposes, when the agency knew this is illegal.

Yet one thing rarely mentioned is The Land Readjustment Act for Development 2004. If the developer and the government had observed this law, the situation might have been different. Apparently, this legislation focuses on bringing all stakeholders -- mainly the developer, landlords and the community to settle on land conflicts and decide on the benefits of sharing even before a construction permit is obtained.

It is useless to cry over spilt milk. At best, The Ashton Asoke should be a cautionary tale for developers and consumers. I hope the government will use this case to create solutions that will save a lot of headaches and financial woes for developers and consumers.

As a trained landscape architect and planner, I will offer my views on land management to illustrate how planners view it and how land use conflicts like the case of Ashton Asoke can be tackled.

I group stakeholders into three groups: the developer (Ananda MF Asia Asoke Co), home buyers, and landlords. The landlords, in this case, are the MRTA, Namdhari Sangat Gurudwara -- a religious (Sikh) premise -- and the individual land owners on Soi Sukhumvit 19.

There are three solutions for the Ashton Asoke project:

1) Renegotiation with the MRTA for land adjustment.

For those who follow the news, this solution might be shocking and could enrage society. That is because it will violate the Land Appropriation Act that forces the MRTA to use public land for transit purposes only.

Or we can look at this problem through the lens of land adjustment. Under this lens, we need to suspend our fixed belief that public assets of the MRTA must be used for mass transit only. The subway, also known as the MRT, is more than just a transportation facility; it is part of terminal facilities planning that can affect economic activities in the community. The MRT should also support Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and promote economic activities -- not curtail them. Therefore, the developer and the MRTA could negotiate and swap land plots, so that the MRTA gets the property and the developer -- as well as over 500 homeowners, gets the problem solved. If all stakeholders had observed The Land Readjustment Act for Development 2004, the developer and the MRTA would have negotiated for land adjustment right from the start.

2) The second solution is buying from nearby Namdhari. This solution is the most possible and most rational -- even Srisuwan Janya, who filed the case against Ashton Asoke is in favour of this. The land is large enough, without houses or residents living on it. As a landscape architect, the downside to this is the adjacent plot has a lot of trees; the big trees that indeed help with purifying the air will be cut down and replaced with an access road and thus the total green area may affect EIA approval.

3) Buying more plots to create a new entrance.

If the second solution fails, the developer can try to purchase small plots from landlords in small sois on Sukhumvit 19 to create a new exit and replace the exit facing Asoke Montri Road. But the developer would have to negotiate with a few landowners. I wonder whether this solution would work because it is reported that the relationship between the developer and the wider community is somewhat frosty. Another problem is that along some parts of Sukhumvit Soi 19, the width is narrower than 18 metres -- the amount required by law for an access road.

What is more worrying is that the Ashton Asoke project might not be the only one with this problem. It is reported that at least five projects also have similar problems. The question is what the BMA will do to solve these immediate problems. Tear down the high rises? Revise the law to right the wrong and to help commercial developers get away with such problems?

The more important issue is what we need to do to prevent the same mistake. As I mentioned earlier, the government and people rarely make use of The Land Readjustment for Development Act 2004. The land readjustment act is not a new concept at all. Indeed, Germany, Japan, Turkey and Nepal have used this practice to govern land development in cities. The concept promotes altering the shape and land conditions of lots in order to improve public facilities and increase the usage of each lot.

Thailand's Land Readjustment for Development Act 2004 requires national and local governments like the BMA to create a committee on land adjustment and readjustment associations for the private sector. The law also provides a solid process that requires all stakeholders -- developers, state licensing bodies, land owners and the community to sit at the table and solve the land issue problems before the developer applies for the permit. During this process, the developer, state and private land owners can discuss compensation and even land adjustment or land swaps to enable land development and public infrastructure.

Most land conflicts stem from communication problems. Many developers could not settle with the landowners and the surrounding communities. The land adjustment process could bring together all stakeholders so they can work out their differences and discuss possible benefits before the project starts. That would be a better start.

Professor Ariya Aruninta, Ph.D, is a lecturer on land planning and landscape architecture at Chulalongkorn University.

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