Forbidden city

Will Greenland’s project face the wrecking ball?


Chongming, the new Greenland

In 2016, Fan Bingbing appeared in a TV commercial for a luxury residential project in Shandong’s coastal city Qingdao. Reportedly the starlet was one of the buyers of the villas there. “It’s so close to the ocean. You can dip your toes in the water right in front of the door,” she gushed at the time .

The problem was the development was so close to the shoreline that environmentalists complained it was breaking marine protection laws. The local government was forced to knock down 40 ultra-luxury homes that were worth about Rmb2.5 billion ($390 million).

Last week, developer Greenland discovered its ambitious property project near Shanghai could be next for demolition.

The development sits on the eastern coast of Chongming, a 1,225 square-kilometre island adjacent to the Yangtze River estuary.

Chongming is one of China’s biggest islands. It is accessible via the Yangtze River Tunnel Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the country. In recent years, the island has become an important ecological resource and home to two large wetland parks.

Known as Greenland Long Island, the now controversial project began about six years ago. It stretches about 10 kilometres along the Yangtze River, and covers a total area of 15 square kilometres.

It is near completion and set to be ready by 2022. However, Xinhua reported in early February that the developer had violated the Yangtze River’s preservation programme and Chongming’s planning goals.

According to the region’s latest Five-Year Plan, Chongming is being positioned a “world-class eco-friendly island”. As a result no new buildings on the island should be more than 18 metres high.

But after sending drones over Greenland Long Island, Xinhua found that there were 40 high-rises more than double the height limit.

The entire project, which takes up just 1.2% of Chongming’s land mass, could house more than 200,000 people – a significant figure given Shanghai planners’ decision to cap the population on the island at 700,000. Xinhua also discovered that Qilong township, where the Long Island site is located, was designated for tourism projects.

A closer look suggested that the only property that’s related to tourism is a club for horse riding – though it appears largely abandoned.

“Even though the land was meant for tourism, projects like the equestrian club were few and far between. Instead, large-scale commercial residential properties were everywhere,” the news agency thundered.

Critics now want answers as to why construction in such a high-profile location was allowed to go on for so long in the first place.

“How did the construction deviate from the development plan? Behind the management, approval and supervision, where did it go wrong? Is there any dereliction of duty or even corruption? We must trace to the root of the problem to find the answer,” Lan Linzong from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection questioned.

The answer may not be so straightforward. The problem is that Qilong is one of the two townships in Chongming Island that belongs to Jiangsu province. As a result, it soon becomes a case of ‘one island two systems’, Zhao Zuowen, a real estate investor, explained on his blog on Sina. On the one hand, the Shanghai municipal government wants to adhere to the environmental guidelines; on the other hand, the Qilong government likely prefers to prioritise economic development, he said.

The news certainly puts the Shanghai municipal government in an embarrassing position as it is also a major shareholder of state-backed Greenland. “The cost to construct 40 buildings is a lot of money; it is not a problem that the simple word ‘demolish’ can solve. Greenland, meanwhile, is also a state-owned firm. So tearing everything down is also going to mean enormous damage to our country’s assets. This pot [a Chinese slang term for mistake] is one nobody can afford to carry, ” reckoned Zhao. A write-off is likely the last thing Greenland needs. As we pointed out in WiC528, it is one of (several) property giants whose finances have attracted media scrutiny – in its case the jitters came after it missed a payment to real estate agents in Harbin.

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