Converting Colombo

Tuesday, 14 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Is Colombo ready to change? Parliament was informed last week that 200 hectares of land under the Urban Development Authority (UDA) will be released for private investment next year. The sheer size of such change gives leave for pause when one imagines the change in the city’s skyline.

Colombo is not just an expensive piece of real estate to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. It is a living, breathing organism that pulsates with the life of thousands of people – their history, language, religion and history are what makes the soul of the capital while the people themselves are the heart. Many areas of Colombo such as Fort, Slave Island and even the slums have their own tale to tell and in each is a sense of belonging for the people who call this region home.

Sentimentality may have no place in development, the pragmatist might argue. However, for those who have been born and bred in Colombo, the city has an identity that cannot be lost in the rush to become another Singapore or Malaysia. No one denies that the capital needs improvement and many are in agreement with the Defence Ministry’s plans, yet the question of how this goal can be achieved remains a point of contention.

For example, last week Bank of Ceylon employees staged a protest outside their branch down York Street demanding that plans to shut down the office and hand over the building to a hotel be squashed. The demonstrators point out that the building is part of the bank’s history and as such should not be allowed to fall into the hands of another authority that would erase the previous hallmarks.

As with all arguments, the issue is multidimensional; many people are afraid that the identity connected to these lovely Dutch buildings will be lost to the next generation. That if they are handed over to private enterprise, the majestic giants of yesteryear will be torn down and zombie high rise buildings with their impersonal reflector windows will edge the skyline. Yet, most of these buildings are in terrible condition, with many offices spending minimal funding on upkeep. Also, despite being architectural marvels in their heyday, the high ceilings, thick walls and broad windows do not make for energy efficient lighting and air conditioning that are considered essential to an office environment.

The Defence Ministry has been quick to assuage concerns and insist that the original facades of the buildings will be maintained while their functionality will be increased through private investment. An idealistic goal with its fair share of sceptics is the natural result. The largely well-maintained buildings are not the only casualties; their counterparts that have been forgotten and left to ruin run the most risk of destruction.

Sheltered under structures modern and old are the city’s slums, often ignored but now converted to a talking point as the Government plans resettlement. Part of the people are to be housed in apartment blocks as their labour is needed for Colombo to function and the rest are to be moved to the suburbs. A timeline has not been established for the entire project, but it is estimated that each unit will cost Rs. 2 million. Needless to say, the people have strong reservations and await the outcome with trepidation.  

Colombo needs to be developed with its heart and soul intact. It needs to do more than exist – the capital must live.