Thinking out of the box on heritage protection

By Martin Rama   December 23, 2019 | 06:05 pm PT
Sometimes life confronts us with difficult choices, where we can obtain something we value only at the expense of losing something else that we care about too.
Martin Rama

Martin Rama

In those circumstances, we can only wish for a creative solution that would allow us to get what we need and keep what we love. These days, Hanoi is confronted with one of those difficult choices, but fortunately a creative solution exists.

A false trade-off

Hanoi needs better urban transport infrastructure to handle its ever-growing vehicle traffic. Its inhabitants spend many hours every week on the road, on the way to work and back home. From that point of view, projects such as the Vinh Tuy - Nga Tu elevated road should come as a relief to commuters, who will have more time for themselves and their families.

At the same time, the project requires the demolition of thousands of commercial and residential structures, one of which is a very valuable architectural and historical landmark.

The beautiful house on 128C Dai La street is one among only a few hundred French villas with outstanding architectural features left in all of Hanoi. As such, it is part of endangered cultural heritage. But in addition, it occupies an incredibly important place in the history of the city and the country. It is from there that the first radio transmission of Indochina took place, in 1912. From there was also broadcasted Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in 1945. And it is from that house that came General Vo Nguyen Giap's appeal for resistance in 1946.

It is understandable for the authorities to favor traffic decongestion over heritage protection. After all, more people care about their own time than about the city’s architecture, or the country's history. The beautiful villa at 128C Dai La street is thus scheduled for demolition in the coming days.

But I want to argue here that the elevated road can be built AND the villa preserved. That requires three innovations in urban development: one technological, another financial, and the third one on governance. And they are all feasible.

A French villa at 128C Dai La Street, Hanoi, which served as a radio station from the early 1900s. Photo by Voice of Vietnam.

A French villa at 128C Dai La Street, Hanoi, which served as a radio station from the early 1900s. Photo by Voice of Vietnam.

The technological innovation

Large structures have been moved from one location to another for more than 150 years. The original entrance of London’s Buckingham Palace, known as Marble Arch, was relocated to Hyde Park as early as 1851. Since then, multistory buildings, lighthouses, theaters and monuments have been transported all around the globe. In the United States, there are companies which have been moving private houses for more than 50 years, sometimes on long distances. Even in Vietnam, the so-called Genie has been relocating structures for private customers for a while now.

A relevant example for Hanoi is that of the historical Mackenzie House, located in the campus of a university in Detroit. This beautiful Victorian villa, built in 1895, was moved a few hundred meters in April to make room for a new performance center in the university campus. The process took five days. For those interested, an amazing video called "Mackenzie House Move 2019" on YouTube compresses the process to just three minutes.

Doing something similar for the villa at 128C Dai La street would be an extraordinary way for the urban authorities of Hanoi to show their technical prowess and their commitment to heritage preservation. The entire country would be glued to television screens watching the progress on the relocation, feeling proud of what Vietnam can accomplish nowadays.

The financial innovation

A legitimate concern is whether the relocation would be too expensive to be justified. But moving a small structure is affordable. Relocating the bigger Mackenzie House in Detroit cost about $750,000. By comparison, the cost of the Vinh Tuy - Nga Tu elevated road is estimated at $417 million. Even if the relocation of the villa at 128C Dai La was as expensive as that of the Mackenzie House, it would amount to less than 0.2 percent of total project spending.

In many countries, urban infrastructure projects reserve a part of their budget for beautification. Large-scale infrastructure is rarely pretty, and so cities that care about livability encourage projects to include gardens, sculpture parks, murals, or hanging vegetation. This is so even in developing countries such as India, whose income per capita is similar to that of Vietnam.

But in addition, the private sector can cover some of the relocation cost. Contributing to heritage preservation is a way for businesses to show their sense of civic responsibility. In a case that is bound to involve heavy media coverage, the relocation would be a way for the supporting businesses to get a lot of publicity and good will, at relatively low cost.

When the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire in Paris, one of France’s richest businessmen immediately donated $ 1 billion for the reconstruction. And within hours he was outbid by an even richer businessman who donated $2 billion. I am sure that both were genuinely moved by the prospect of losing one of France’s most beloved landmarks. But I suspect that they also saw generosity as a great public relations opportunity.

The governance innovation

In the absence of a mechanism to handle the use of private money in public projects, there is a risk that donations for heritage preservation by rich businesspeople could be misinterpreted. Citizens could wonder whether the process was completely transparent, and whether favors were exchanged along the way. This is a concern that would need to be addressed.

The economic thinking on public-private partnerships (PPPs) offers an opportunity to do so. A relevant PPP mechanism in this context is the so-called single parameter auction, an approach that has been widely used for road construction.

In the case of the villa at 128C Dai La the mechanism would work as follows. The urban authorities could clear a spot of land near the Vinh Tuy - Nga Tu elevated road and auction the relocation of the villa to this spot of land. Together with the technical aspects of the move, the authorities could also auction the land-use rights for the spot of land and the villa. But in exchange, the winner of the auction would have to commit to keep the villa open to the public, reserving for instance one of its floors for a small museum and for exhibitions related to the history of radio transmission in Vietnam.

Potential investors would include businesspeople who want to run a fancy restaurant in the villa, or an upscale shop, or an art gallery, or prestigious corporate headquarters. In a first, pre-qualification stage, the potential investors would have to show that they have the technical capacity to relocate the villa and the architectural expertise to renovate it in a respectful and tasteful way.

In a second stage, the pre-selected bidders would have to state how much money they would require to fulfill the terms of the deal... or how much money they would be willing to pay to have a chance to get a red book for that fabulous villa! This amount of money is the single parameter of the auction. The bidder asking for the smallest amount of money, or offering to pay the largest amount, would get the contract. In many single-parameter auctions of this sort the government ends up making money, rather than spending money.

The technical quality and financial transparency of the auction could be enhanced by inviting a competent international organization to serve as advisor and observer. For example, UNESCO would be ideally placed to play that role in the case of the villa at 128C Dai Lai.

The ideas in this article are just suggestions, and other alternatives may be considered. But beyond the details, the building of the Vinh Tuy - Nga Tu elevated road offers a great opportunity for the urban authorities of Hanoi to show that when confronted with a difficult choice they are capable to think out of the box and come up with a creative solution. In doing so, they would prove that Hanoi is a "smart city" indeed.

*Martin Rama is the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, and a Project Director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The opinions expressed are personal.

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