Put culture first in old town revamps
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Put culture first in old town revamps

Luenrit Community teeming with activities in this file photo from Sept 22, 2003. Currently, old structures are preserved and gentrified for art and tourism purposes. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
Luenrit Community teeming with activities in this file photo from Sept 22, 2003. Currently, old structures are preserved and gentrified for art and tourism purposes. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

Will Thailand's old towns include their old communities as they are renovated? In many of these important districts, institutional owners of land are apt to evict legacy tenants to make way for redevelopment, threatening vintage architecture and eroding vibrant local cultures and ways of life.

But a beacon of hope emerged two decades ago, when the families living in an historic block near Bangkok's Chinatown negotiated with their landlord to be allowed to pursue their own collective plan and remain in place.

The Luenrit Community, which dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century reign of King Rama V, is home to around 220 classic shophouses that are especially important because they exemplify one of Thailand's early generations of shophouses. For more than a century, Luenrit has thrived as both a community and bustling centre of trade, mostly wholesale. With some 100 families, it's a multicultural block where groups of ethnic Indian and Chinese as well as Thai residents have formed strong social bonds.

The Luenrit community persuaded the landlord, the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), to drop a deal it had entered with a property developer that would have turned the old site into a modern commercial hub. Instead, the community secured a new lease in a plan to develop a new business model, with tenants joining forces to renovate their homes and manage the site under a group corporation called Chumchon Luenrit Company (CLC).

The goal was to preserve the life of the community and its irreplaceable architectural heritage. It was the first time the CPB had abandoned its traditional practice of either renovating a property itself or leasing it out to a developer. The CPB's milestone endorsement of this new collaborative model for conservation acknowledged the significance of the community and its cultural heritage.

The Luenrit case raised hope among other communities facing similar challenges. With proactive action, eviction could become a thing of the past, it appeared. Luenrit could set a precedent for success by tenants on sites under ownership of institutions like the CPB, government agencies, state-owned enterprises, temples and foundations. There are many thousands of such tenant communities all over Thailand, so the case is pivotal, with a potential impact on the look and social fabric of townscapes nationwide.

The site reopened under its new model after renovations were completed a couple of years ago. The once dilapidated shophouses are freshly restored. Modern amenities have been integrated into the structures, and their historic architectural characteristics have been retained. Yet the community's previously vibrant commercial life is absent, and the place seems sterile. As a business plan, unfortunately, the project is not yet successful. Only about 10% of the space is occupied, mainly by coffee shops, restaurants and bars in shops located on the inside of the cluster. Only two of the legacy traders remain on the main road, Yaowarat Road, one selling commercial scales and the other fabric.

What happened to conserving the soul of the community? Did the business plan just suffer from bad timing? Construction was completed during the Covid lockdown, when commerce shifted toward online channels, reducing the need for physical distribution outlets.

The CLC admits that it has struggled to find the right business model, which should be one that generates enough profits to cover both the rent and the substantial sums that the families have invested in renovation. The company envisions transforming the community into a "co-creative space", and it welcomes collaborations with government agencies and universities.

However, it has not fully discussed its ideas with all tenants, who may be concerned that the plan will take too long to become profitable. Some tenants question why their lively commercial area had to be transformed into a gated quarter where roads have been reallocated for use by pedestrians and special events, with little parking space and limited access by car. This makes it less viable for trade.

The community corporation has undertaken efforts to illustrate the potential of creative businesses to attract visitors. During Bangkok Design Week in February 2023, one of the shophouses served as a venue for an exhibition. This year in February, a handicraft shop there had a soft launch. Given its location a stone's throw from Yaowarat, a major destination for domestic and international tourists, the area has potential for successful retail and hospitality businesses.

The company's notion of developing the site as a "creative district" may hold promise. However, without actively involving all tenants in discussion and considering their input, it risks becoming a top-down mandate rather than collaboration. This could exacerbate the strain already caused by the tough approach taken by the CLC, which filed court cases against 14 community members for alleged non-cooperation.

Preserving the block's historic architecture is crucial, but it's also important to heed the needs and thinking of inhabitants. After all, they are entrepreneurs, so they might have good business advice. The project should not be hailed as a standard for conservation success until it meets the wishes of the community. In future redevelopments, a more pragmatic approach might involve renovation in phases, allowing tenants to remain in place rather than move out entirely during top-to-bottom construction work, as happened at Luenrit. This might lengthen the time to completion, but it would help ensure continuous tenancy by longtime residents and legacy businesses, keeping the neighbourhood's grass roots intact.

To promote effective collaboration, every member should feel empowered to voice their thoughts and participate in decision-making. All ideas deserve open discussion. An inclusive approach would not only foster learning but also cultivate a shared responsibility for steering the organisation toward growth and financial sustainability. It could help make the project and the community stronger, setting a good precedent for neighbourhoods all over Bangkok and the nation.

These are still early days for the restored Luenrit site, and the CLC and CPB both deserve credit for pioneering a new path towards conservation. But other communities and their heritage remain at risk in the absence of strong national policies to protect them, jeopardising our quality of life. The government should revamp our outdated heritage conservation system and incentivise institutional landlords to keep old communities and legacy businesses in place. Property developers already have plenty of opportunities outside historic districts. In old towns, let communities themselves renovate their properties so that their people, culture and heritage can continue to benefit our society for decades to come. ©The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is the former urban issues columnist of the 'Bangkok Post'. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conserving the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each edition is by a different guest contributor. The views expressed are those of the author.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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