Dos and don’ts for the Hoan Kiem Lake metro station

By Martin Rama   October 29, 2018 | 07:56 pm PT
Georgetown and Paris show what should and shouldn’t be done to preserve the Hoan Kiem Lake area’s unique charms.
Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank.

Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank.

The inhabitants of Georgetown, the historic area where I live in Washington, once opposed the opening of a metro station in their elegant and wealthy neighborhood. This was in the 1980s, at a time when Washington was the crime capital of America.

Georgetown residents feared the popular masses that the metro would bring with it. Crime rates would increase. One of America’s first areas to be protected as historic heritage would become more crowded. And the station gates, large and ugly, would damage the neighborhood’s harmonious street views.

To this day, Georgetown does not have a metro station. This is despite the fact that a metro line crosses the area underground. A quarter of a century has passed since this choice was made, which is long enough to assess whether it was sensible.

And there may be lessons from this experience for the ongoing discussion in Hanoi, about having a metro station in the historic Hoan Kiem area.

Let me clarify that the veracity of this revolt by the privileged has been questioned.

An authoritative book on the history of America’s metros claims the engineering design of the Washington metro did not include a station in Georgetown, so that there was nothing to fight against. However, the privileged know how to influence government choices before they are finalized, without having to sign petitions or to hold street demonstrations later on.

Georgetown is one of Washington’s most attractive neighborhoods, and not surprisingly, land prices there are among the highest in the city. Walking around its leafy streets, enjoying the homogeneous Victorian architecture, having drinks by its river shore, or meeting with friends in its lively bars... these things should be possible for everybody in the city, and not only for the wealthy people who can afford to live in the neighborhood.

But getting there by car is difficult, because there is not much parking space around. Therefore, not having a metro station in Georgetown amounts to excluding from one of the best parts of the city those who live farther out, and who tend to be poorer.

Much the same as Georgetown in Washington, the Hoan Kiem area is among the most attractive in Hanoi. The area is also increasingly perceived as the soul of the city, and the welcome decision to make its streets pedestrian on weekends has made it even more popular.

Hanoians converge there in increasingly large numbers to enjoy the charm of the lake, the beautiful garden around it, the open- air performances and social activities, and the remarkable architecture of the surrounding streets. It would not be surprising if someday the entire area became pedestrian on a permanent basis, as has happened with the historic core of many European cities.

The Sword Lake lies in the heart of Hanoi as one of its most important symbols. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

The Sword Lake lies in the heart of Hanoi as one of its most important symbols. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

Having a metro station near Hoan Kiem lake would allow Hanoians to access the area more easily, even if they live far away. The enjoyment of the city’s wonderful heritage would thus become more egalitarian. And while the number of pedestrians would increase, vehicle congestion would decrease. More people would get there by metro, rather than by motorbike or by car.

From this perspective, I would say “yes” to the proposal to have a metro station in the Hoan Kiem area. This is also the answer large European cities gave when confronted with the decision to have metro stations in their historic cores. However, there is also a “but...”

Heritage should not be made accessible at the expense of damaging it. What makes the Hoan Kiem area special is its unique charm. The envisioned metro station should be designed in a way that does not undermine this charm. But the information available on the design of the proposed metro station is not reassuring in this respect.

Based on the display at the Ho Guom Cultural Information Center, the Hoan Kiem metro station would have four gates, and they would be huge. One of them would be on Dinh Tien Hoang street, in front of Electricity of Vietnam. This gate would be almost as wide as the sidewalk, affecting pedestrian circulation.

Another gate would be directly inside the garden surrounding the lake, very close to its edge. This other gate would reduce the green surface and bring heavy in-and-out circulation to a place that is quiet and intimate today. A third gate would be in front of the old post office, on Le Thach street, partially hiding a very elegant French building.

I would challenge anyone who is familiar with the historic core of Paris to tell where the gates of the Notre Dame metro station are. Not one of them is visible from the plaza in front of the church. One is in a faraway corner, almost hidden underneath trees. Two others are farther out, on the other side of the river. And they are very discrete too. Visitors to the historic core of Paris can get there by metro, but they are not bothered by it.

The damage to harmonious street views that Georgetown residents feared was clearly avoided in the case of Paris. But based on the proposed design it may not be avoided in the case of Hanoi. In sum, I fully support the opening of a metro station in the Hoan Kiem area, and hope that Hanoi will not repeat the dubious choice Washington made in relation to Georgetown.

But I also hope that the authorities will also consider the choice Paris made in relation to Notre Dame. This would involve having fewer gates, making them smaller and more discreet, and placing them farther out in the direction of Ngo Quyen Street. This way, the Hoan Kiem area would not only become more accessible to all but would also be preserved as the soul of the city.

*Martin Rama is Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank and Project Director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The opinions expressed are his own.

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