Redevelopment aims at landmark changes, while residents worry: Bamba Flats await new look | Sunday Observer

Redevelopment aims at landmark changes, while residents worry: Bamba Flats await new look

The government earlier this year announced its plans to launch various housing and related development programs beneficial to citizens, leading up to year 2017 which has been declared as the Year of Alleviation of Poverty. While a number of such plans by the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) are already under way the government has looked at the redevelopment of existing public housing. Therefore, in March a Cabinet decision was made to redevelop the Bambalapitiya flats, one of the oldest of its kind in the country, among others such as the Police flats, Anderson, Soysapura and Maligawatta public housing schemes.

According to the Cabinet announcement the decision was made under a proposal brought forward by Minister of Housing and Construction Sajith Premadasa as the flats have faced serious decay due to being located near the sea, creating a hazardous environment for its residents calling for redevelopment, due to the current alleged unsafe situation.

However, the decision has left residents of the flats in an alarmed and panicked state for the past several months. The lack of information about the proposed project, being asked to leave within two months of agreeing to vacate the premises, and the possibility of having to live in a multiple story building on completion of the redevelopment, paying high condominium fees, are only some of the issues causing serious distress to the largely aging population of residents.

However, while the issues are causing them major concern, the flat owners are clear in their stance regarding redevelopment of the flats. While the residents claim they are supportive of the government’s efforts of development, they urge that any form of redevelopment should be done in a fair and reasonable manner and therefore the proposal in its current state is in no way acceptable to them.

Bambalapitiya Flats

The land now occupied by the Bambalapitiya flats was once owned by the Catholic church and is said to have been the Seminary Garden where novice priests were trained. Subsequently, taken over by the government Bambalapitiya flats was constructed on the land during the era of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa to provide middle income persons with affordable housing.

Having started construction in the 1950s, today the housing scheme is over 65 years old, says the Chairman of the Condominium Management Authority (CMA) C.A Wijeweera. While initially, the flats were government owned later on due to the high maintenance costs involved, the authorities, in order to absolve themselves from it in the 1970s sold the apartments to the occupants at nominal rates.

According to Wijeweera this made the owners responsible for the maintenance of the housing scheme while the law dictated that this should be done through the Condominium Management Corporations formed by the owners.

Today, the Bambalapitiya flats consist of 17 blocks, 300 home units, 10 retail outlets as well as various common areas such as garden, a playground and a community hall spread across 10.16 acres of land.

Re-development

Unlike in freehold property, owners of flats or apartments face a time ceiling on the ownership, beyond which the residency lapses. The basis of this is that it is assumed buildings have a lifespan, beyond which maintenance would be uneconomical. Therefore, in recent times accusations have been levelled against the government for not evicting occupants after the lapse of the ownership as well as not re-developing housing schemes despite them becoming unsuitable for habitation.

Perhaps in a bid to address these accusations Wijeweera says, the Bambalapitiya flats have now been given priority for redevelopment as it is now beyond economic repair. ¨According to the Condominium Property Act (No.12) of 1970 the CMA can acquire condominium properties that are over 40 years for re-development¨ he says, adding that if not for redevelopment, flats such as Bambalapitiya will turn out to be vertical slums in the heart of Colombo city, as proper maintenance has not been done by the Condominium Management Corporations. ¨These corporations have not functioned properly and have not been effective¨ he says, adding that today the flats have become an eyesore and are on the verge of collapse.

¨This is why we need to redevelop these places¨ he says adding that redevelopment of the flats into a high yield urban block will ensure that Bambalapitiya plays a crucial role in the planning and development of Colombo city.

According to the proposed plan the redevelopment is to be conducted as a mixed development project. One acre of the entire land area valued at Rupees 11.3 Billion has been proposed to be allocated to build the new tower for the flat residents.

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The tower will consist of 10 floors for parking while housing units will be located on 30 floors above that¨ Wijeweera says, adding that the project is set to be completed in 36 - 42 months, during which flat owners will be given an allowance according to the current type of accommodation occupied by them.

Also, when new apartments are allocated, the occupants would receive a much larger floor area than the current flat, says Wijeweera. Accordingly flat owners occupying an apartments consisting of three, two and one bedroom will be paid Rs 80, 000, 70, 000 and 60, 000 respectively for alternate accommodation during the period.

Wijeweera says the allowance will be paid as a lump sum and the authorities will continue to pay if the project takes more time than intended. According to the CMA, the remaining 9.16 acres will be utilized for a mixed development project which will consist of housing and semi- commercial properties.

Concerns

However, despite the promises made many occupants remain apprehensive about the proposed project. According to Gopalan, a flat occupant and a former President of the Bambalapitiya Flat Welfare Association (BFWA) an air of mistrust has been created between the occupants and the authorities due to the manner the flat owners were approached on the redevelopment of the area.

While the owners were approached several times and recently in 2014 and 2016 regarding the matter, according to them the letter they received from the NHDA along with the CMA only mentions of refurbishment of the property as opposed to redevelopment. They feel they were mislead by the authorities thereby making them wary of their efforts. ¨They called us for a meeting claiming it is for the refurbishment only, and then to spring the plan of redevelopment on us¨ Gopalan said. According to a Steering Committee member of the BFWA, Bharatha Mendis the shock of the news even resulted in a flat owner suffering a heart attack at the end of the first meeting. Another serious grouse they have is regarding the height of the proposed building. According to Mendis while 80 per cent of flat owners are elderly, living in a high rise building is a serious matter of concern for them.

¨We are also worried about the added costs, such as, maintenance of lifts, air conditioning etc.¨ he says, adding that many living in the Bambalapitiya flats currently are unable to afford such additional costs due to being retired or nearing retirement. It will also limit our freedom to move around¨ Mendis says.

Disrepair

¨No examination was conducted to check the structure prior to making claims of it being dilapidated¨ says Mendis. According to him no politician or official visited the area to make the necessary observations. While many areas appear to be well maintained some buildings did appear to have fallen into disrepair, a fact the residents admit.

W.E Jayawardene, also a former employee of the NHDA points out, the only block that appears so is Block L which has been badly maintained by the owners. Gopalan says it is this building that is being used to portray the whole scheme as being badly maintained.

Flat owners who themselves have done research into the proposed project point out the lack of information and vagueness as another reason for their reluctance about the project. While the developer of the project has been named as UTL Global Projects Pte. Ltd. a company registered in Singapore, said to be backed by Engineering Projects India Ltd., the details of the said developer remain ambiguous.

The company does not appear to have a website to obtain further information, while contact details of the Colombo office too has not been listed. Despite attempts by the Sunday Observer to contact the Group Chairman of UTL Global Projects, Madhusudhana Chowdary, we were unable to elicit a response from him. The fact that hardly any information is available about the developer too has caused serious concerns among occupants. ¨How are we to know they can complete such a project if we cannot see their track record?¨ questions Gopalan and rightly so. While also worried about finding alternative accommodation in the vicinity the main concern of the occupants is the lifestyle change they have to endure.

Buddy Gunaratne is a senior occupant, who has been living in the flats since 1957. According to his wife the prospect of a lifestyle change at this age has caused him severe distress. The thought of moving away from the community is one they appear to struggle with. ¨It is well known that flat owners from any racial community was not harmed during the 1983 riots with the occupants protecting each other. ¨I can easily speak to my neighbours today but we will be boxed in a high rise building and lose our sense of community,¨ Buddy laments.

The CMA has accused those opposed to the project as individuals with vested interests, by pointing out illegal constructions by certain flat owners, and other violations such as, renting out advertising space on NHDA land. Mendis claims, no action was taken despite informing the authorities of such illegal constructions, and that billboards were allowed in order to cover costs of maintenance of the flats.

However, according to the Chairman of the CMA 80 per cent of the flat owners are in favour of the redevelopment save a few with vested interests. A claim they deny.

Members of the BFWA also state that various confusing statements made by government officials have caused uncertainty about their fate, says Gopalan. ¨We are citizens and want our country to develop but it must be done in a fair manner¨ he said and added that owners have been told the redevelopment will go ahead despite any oppositions.

¨We are for redevelopment and do not wish to be selfish¨ says Mendis. He requests, that the government should consider building 3 - 4 towers instead of one as proposed, to preserve the sense of community, and conduct the construction in stages without asking occupants to vacate fully.

Panic and distress

NHDA Chairman L.S. Palansuriya recently was quoted as saying that the plan is at discussion stage and has not been finalized yet, while Chairman of the Board of Investments, Upul Jayasuriya was quoted saying the project is still being studied by BOI and the NHDA. ¨We have not decided if we want to go for one unsolicited proposal or competitive bidding.

Once we have decided on an investor, they will carry out the project in consultation with the residents,” he had said. However the long wait to know of their fate has left residents in a state of continuous panic and distress.

Despite the issues, WIjeweera promises that the people will not be treated unfairly. ¨We will consider the input from the people and try to accommodate changes and requests” he said adding that authorities do not just wish to throw people out onto the streets.

Mendis too says,¨I am hopeful that the government will always consider the best interests of the people” adding that they too are willing to negotiate with the CMA and the NHDA for the best possible outcome for the owners as well as the development of the country.

Pix: Saman Sri Wedage and Shan Rambukwella

Comments

Govt trying to commercialize beautiful residential Area as Bambalapitiya Flats!!! Remember, any dwelling can be fixed For habitat even it's 65 years old!!! What Govt is doing, is out of 11 Acres , build a high rise building in 1 Acre for owner's and develop other 10 Acres!!! Well, that's not ideal solution!!!?? That's turning upside down in an beautiful residential area!!!?

The biggest eye sore in Colombo 4 today are these flats, they are outdated and occupy valuable space in the City. Its time they are all demolished and the land reclaimed with the building of this tower for all the residents, the remaining land facing Galle Road could be developed for commercial purposes for the benefit of the residents. Also the tower block would have all the latest aminities compared the existing eyesore. Time to demolish all these so called blocks and utilize the land much better in the 21st century.
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