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Alarm Bells Muffled as Plan Changes

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 Alarm bells muffled as plan changes

 Visitors walk in the square next to the Gulou on Tuesday. [China Daily]

Experts and local residents were talking about their hopes and fears for the Gulou - or Drum Tower - area on Monday after hearing details of the local government's scaled-down redevelopment.

Dongcheng district government said it plans to revive the square in between the Drum and Bell towers so it resembles how it looked 600 years ago.

The new plan replaces the previous "facelift" slated for the area that was to have included the wholesale rebuilding of a 12.5 hectare area and have cost 5 billion yuan.

The latest plan was endorsed during the recent Dongcheng district people's congress, according to Beijing News.

In comparison to the old plan that called for a "cultural square" and a huge underground complex comprising parking lots and shops, the new version is modest. It calls for the square to be rebuilt to look as it did in the Ming and Qing dynasties, but little else.

There will be no large-scale architectural projects in the area, other than the Beijing Time Museum. Construction of that began in December.

The museum will be built southeast of Gulou on a 0.6-hectare site, said Xu Hui, director of the district's development and reform commission.

Xu said the new plan does not call for underground development beneath the square.

Experts had been skeptical that a redevelopment could ever "revive the historical significance" of the area but said it would more likely make the area fake and commercialized.

According to He Shuzhong, director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, the current Qianmen pedestrian street is an example of how a thriving historical neighborhood can be transformed into a "soulless" pseudo-Ming Dynasty commercial street, thanks to poor planning.

Built in 1272, the Drum Tower and Bell Tower announced time to Beijingers for more than 600 years. Together with the surrounding hutong, courtyards, and the residents, the area now still displays a relatively unchanged face of old Beijing.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center campaigned along with scholars and other critics against the previous redevelopment plan for the area after it was unveiled about one year ago by the former Dongcheng district government.

The unpopular project was called the "Beijing Time Cultural City". He said the new plan will keep the area "clean, tidy and quiet", and improve the livelihoods of area residents.

The square between the towers has been used as a parking lot and many temporary and disordered shelters have popped up among the neighboring hutong, he added.

The improvements and a sound redevelopment plan could be realized by gradually removing temporary structures in the area and by slowly reducing the population by offering residents incentives and the chance to choose where to live, He said.

Yao Yuan, a columnist who specializes in cultural relic preservation, said the new plan shows the local government has moved forward.

But Yao said the process of decision-making by the government should be more "transparent and open" and the public ought to have the right to join in the discussion about the area's future.

"After all, to improve the local residents' living situation is one very important reason to do the redevelopment," he told METRO on Tuesday.

Song Zhenzhong, a 47-year-old resident whose family has lived in the area for generations, said he hopes the neighborhood will be able to hang on to its unique culture.

"I am very familiar with the neighborhood and possibly every courtyard house in it," said Song, whose hobby is to visit the old courtyard houses and collect antique household items.

"In the summer, you can always come across the old men playing chess under the shade surrounded by keen onlookers. It is unique because you can only find such scenes in hutong communities and I don't want to lose it."

(China Daily January 12, 2011)

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