LACK OF SCHOOLS CITED

Koto moves to stem resident boom

by Tomoko Otake

As many areas of central Tokyo try to woo new residents, Koto Ward is taking the opposite tack and virtually begging developers to stop constructing new apartment complexes.

The waterfront municipality has seen a residential building rush, with an influx of 26,000 new residents over the last five years.

Tens of thousands more are expected over the next decade, when huge redevelopment projects already approved by the ward supply 40,000 more units.

“It’s like a downpour,” said Yoshie Otani, a ward spokeswoman. “We are happy that people are moving in, but the construction of new apartment buildings has simply been too many, too fast.”

In mid-April, the ward sent written requests to 10 developers planning a total of 10,000 units, asking them to either cancel or postpone their projects, citing a lack of school space.

Officials say the situation is most severe in the southern part of the ward, a stretch of reclaimed land riddled with canals. The area, long home to warehouses and factories, is now buzzing with cement trucks and cranes as builders snap up bargains from recession-plagued businesses.

In the Edagawa district, for example, apartment blocks have sprouted in the last few years, bringing in hordes of young families. As the number of babies and toddlers exceeds that of school-age children, Edagawa Elementary School, which is already at capacity with 650 students, is expected to have 1,000 students in 2008 — far more than the school can currently handle, according to the ward.

“Some say, ‘Why not just build more schools?’ ” said Yutaka Suwa, director of Koto Ward’s urban maintenance department. “But we fear that an influx of children will be only temporary and that new schools will be left empty in less than 20 years.”

In the meantime, however, the ward has revised its guidelines to require developers of complexes with 30 units or more to pay the ward 1.25 million yen per unit to help build new schools.

The popularity of new housing complexes in Koto Ward is largely due to the relatively low price of land compared to the rest of central Tokyo, experts said.

“It’s commonly known that land prices are higher in the western part of the metropolis than in the east,” Suwa said. “In that sense, many people find housing in our ward affordable.”

Wards east of the Sumida River have long been considered home to the city’s working class, and therefore suffered an image problem, some residents say. Apartments in Koto Ward have been considerably cheaper than their western counterparts, such as in Suginami and Setagaya wards.

In addition, a continuing decline in land prices has made apartments in Koto Ward even more affordable than ever.

An official of a developers’ association also said Koto Ward has become popular recently for its proximity to central areas, such as Nihonbashi and Ginza, as well as for the relative abundance of large-scale housing projects.

Reactions to Koto Ward’s decision have been mixed.

The Real Estate Companies Association of Japan, an association of large developers that includes eight of the 10 that were asked to halt their construction plans, has protested the move, saying it is “unilateral and in no way permissible.”

“These developers have already signed contracts to buy property, and some have settled their purchases,” said Toshiyuki Jinnai, deputy secretary general of the association. “They had no idea that the ward would ask them to stop the projects.”

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara acknowledged that the metropolitan government was partly responsible for the confusion.

“Both (the ward and the metropolitan government) were sloppy in city planning,” Ishihara told a regular news conference Friday.

But he added that it is the developers, not the metropolitan government, who should help finance new schools.

Hidenori Matsumoto, a local resident and former head of a group of parents of local nursery-school children, also criticized the ward, saying the current turmoil has been caused by a “lack of planning.”

The 32-year-old information technology consultant said the ward closed one of its nurseries at the end of March, based on the results of what he claimed was an outdated survey.

“The ward’s comment that it cannot accept new residents rings hollow in light of its recent decision to shut down the nursery,” he said.

Matsumoto added that the decision to curb the number of residents will come back to haunt the ward some day.

“Some parts of the ward are experiencing a graying of the population,” he said. “If no new housing facilities are built, the ward will eventually only have old people and not enough residents to support them. New residents are like a lifeline for a municipality.”

A new resident, however, expressed concerns over the rapid increase in the population. The 37-year-old mother of three, who declined to be named, said she was surprised to find that the local elementary school two of her children joined in April was jammed with transfer students like them.

The school this year accepted 50 transfer students in the second grade alone, she said.

“I personally hope the municipal government will put a curb to the increase,” she said.