OP ED: Making healthy choices in an age of demolition

By Tran Linh, The writer is a journalist in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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A file photo shows Christmas Light Up 2011 at the Saigon Tax Trade Center. The building, which serves as a defining landmark for locals and tourists alike, is being demolished to make way for a 40-story skyscraper. Photo credit: www.hitachi.com.vn A file photo shows Christmas Light Up 2011 at the Saigon Tax Trade Center. The building, which serves as a defining landmark for locals and tourists alike, is being demolished to make way for a 40-story skyscraper. Photo credit: www.hitachi.com.vn

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The Saigon Tax Trade Center wasn't considered a particularly pretty building, but it served as a defining landmark for locals and tourists alike.
The value of these sorts of places has become understood all over the world.
The Germans realized the importance of preserving their city's old homes and factories and repurposed their interiors to maintain urban identity.
In Singapore, more than 600 buildings in the city's Chinatown have been preserved around a pedestrian promenade, night market, food court and outdoor mall. The city hasn't just revitalized the area for its citizens, it has enhanced its international identity by turning a once depressed neighborhood into a veritable tourism gold mine.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, once boasted beautiful French-colonial structures along District 1’s Le Loi Street and old Chines shophouses near Binh Tay Market.
However, a lack of general planning has resulted in a mish-mash of new and old buildings that suggest to the city's only plan is to destroy its image and identity.
Short-term benefits
The Saigon Tax Trade Center has been renovated several times in its 134-year life span, but its value as a commercial center has persisted throughout.
A project to create pedestrian-only streets in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City has remained stalled in the planning stages for years, while old buildings seem to get pulled down every day.
This prime real estate has great financial and cultural potential and the dire, long-term consequences of its destruction are difficult to calculate.
All of us want development. But in what way? Demolishing everything and filling the downtown with glass and steel skyscrapers is certainly an easy way to go about it.

The center was built in 1880 by the French, who named it Les Grands Magazins Charner (GMC). File photo.
Concepts like “historical preservation” remain alien to us.
But imagine reading about the slow destruction of an antique downtown in any other country!
The Tax Trade Center and the roundabout that once featured a statue of General Tran Nguyen Han are being razed. Will a Ben Thanh Market surrounded by a modern subway station now define the entire city?
The future 40-story Tax Plaza will overwhelm the downtown and leave the few remaining old structures looking like ants in its shadow.
Meanwhile, the city appears to be enthusiastically engaged in cutting down all of its century-old trees.
Soon there will be no correlation between the structures and their environment, and the city's residents will lose all connection to the landscape. Ho Chi Minh City will look just like Bangkok on the street: gridlock snaking between gigantic concrete blocks.
Losing face, losing soul
We need a proposal for the Tax Trade Center that preserves the identity of Ho Chi Minh City's urban core.
Relevant authorities should renovate the interior, restore the exterior and turn the building into a grand central metro line station.
The shell of the old center could meet the projected transportation and trade demands while preserving elements of a place that has become invaluable to local residents.
A metro line station in an old structure that has been functionally renovated would also provide a destination for tourists, shoppers and curious locals.
I wish there had been a public poll or an open design contest to determine the fate of the historical commercial icon.
Moreover, few support the idea of building a metro station in front of the city's opera house and at the nearby Ben Thanh Market.
The city should build its skyscrapers in Thu Thiem and preserved the historical city center.
The city will spend the next two years feeling like a major construction site, but we've yet to see a design or model of what will be built there.
Citizens have a right to know what we're getting, especially when the city they know is being smashed to bits.
A city is a living organism. Houses and streets make up its body; the people living there make up its soul. A healthy balance between body and soul is necessary to create a healthy place to live and work.
HO CHI MINH CITY'S ICONIC DEPARTMENT STORE
 
After occupying one of the most beautiful locations in Ho Chi Minh City for most of its history, the Saigon Tax Trade Center closed on October 1, 2014.
The city plans to replace the center with a 40-story building whose four subterranean levels will house the Ben Thanh–Suoi Tien metro line station. The line will span nearly 20 kilometers between District 1 and District 9 and is expected to come into operation in 2018.
The Saigon Tax Trade Center originally opened as “the Grands Magasins Charner” in 1924 and quickly became “the place to shop in Saigon,” according to Saigon Historian Tim Doling.
The 1937 Guide Touristique Général de l’Indochine described the Grands Magasins as “the best stocked store in Indochina, with the widest selection, incomparable prices and all of the facilities one would find in a Paris department store.”
Last renovated in 2003, the building retains many of its original interior features, notably its beautifully designed stairway with decorative wrought iron railings, Doling wrote.

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