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Harumi urged not to sit back and squander Olympic windfall

by Tomohiro Osaki

Second In A Series

Residents in Tokyo’s Harumi seafront district sometimes have to put up with the rather ignominious joke that their neighborhood is a “lonely island” cut off from the capital’s bustling center.

“Geographically speaking, it’s actually quite close to Ginza,” says Chiyoko Kanno, principal of the JCQ Bilingual Preschool in Harumi. “But people who don’t live here aren’t familiar with the local transportation. So although it’s situated within Tokyo, many experience difficulty getting here.”

Tokyo’s triumph in the race to host the 2020 Olympics earlier this month, therefore, has been widely celebrated by locals as a harbinger of a dramatic transformation for their neighborhood, where the Olympic Village is slated to be built.

Capable of accommodating 17,000 athletes, the village will occupy a 44-hectare parcel of land on the seafront. Under the plans as they currently stand, the accommodations will be remodeled into residential space once the Olympics are over.

Jubilant though the local mood might be right now, experts caution that for the area to truly benefit in a sustainable manner, simply jumping on the Olympic bandwagon won’t be enough.

Without better infrastructure and genuine improvements in inhabitants’ livelihoods, the seafront area, they say, will soon slip back into long-familiar obscurity once the sporting festival is over.

Flanked by Tokyo Bay and located in Chuo Ward, Harumi was built on reclaimed land. It underwent sweeping development in the late 1990s, followed by breakneck construction of high-rises, including the Harumi Island Triton Square, an office and residential complex that has become a local landmark.

Accessibility to trains also improved around that time, as Kachidoki Station began operations with the launch of the underground Oedo Line in 2000.

But despite these improvements, the district remains far too inconvenient to get to and lacks the entertainment facilities necessary to handle the anticipated upsurge of visitors over the next seven years.

According to real estate appraiser Takashi Matsuoka, the fact that Kachidoki is practically the only rail station close to the intended site of the Olympic Village is a major problem, as it still takes visitors around 20 minutes on foot to reach the site.

With a walk of 10 minutes or less seen as the acceptable norm in the Tokyo metropolitan area, this is uncomfortably long, Matsuoka said. Buses are available, but their frequency is far from sufficient, he added.

“With the addition of another train station or the launch of a trolley system, for example, I believe the way people view Harumi would improve drastically,” said Matsuoka, who described the area as by and large devoid of traffic.

It would appear, however, that poor transportation is not Harumi’s only potential Achilles’ heel.

“I sometimes bike to a nearby neighborhood just so I can buy daily groceries because here in Harumi, Triton Square is virtually the only place where you can go shopping,” said Naomi Sato, a 36-year-old local mother and homemaker.

Sato said there aren’t many family-friendly entertainment venues suitable for a casual weekend outing, and many people who live in the district go elsewhere in search of fun.

“It would be great if we could have amusement centers of our own as the arrival of the Olympics nears,” she said.

The broad consensus among experts is that it won’t take long before the area is reborn with more commercial and entertainment facilities, as the need burgeons for such infrastructure in the runup to the Olympics.

The prospect of radical urban development is generating excitement, with many real estate firms suddenly deluged with inquiries about properties in Harumi following the Sept. 8 announcement that Tokyo had won over the International Olympic Committee.

Mitsubishi Estate Co., for one, has rejoiced at the surge in public interest. Its showroom for twin skyscrapers in the area lured more than 300 couples over the three-day weekend from Sept. 14, double the usual number, according to the firm’s chief spokesman.

“We saw many first-time visitors come to the showroom who said they suddenly found the area attractive after the arrival of the Olympics became certain,” he said.

However, Takeshi Ide, chief market researcher at Tokyo Kantei Co., is skeptical the demand will continue to be significant in the years to come due to overall economic woes. On the other hand, there will be acute interest from buyers overseas, Ide said, citing the yen’s recent depreciation.

“There are many foreign buyers planning to purchase condo apartments in the neighborhood and put them up for lease for a couple of years. And once the Olympics are finished, they may just sell them, depending on how much more valuable they will have become by that time so they can rake in more profits,” Ide said, predicting that land prices will rise.

Aside from beefing up transportation and commercial facilities, Ide argued that another imperative is making sure that high-rises under construction be equipped with thorough precautions against potential cataclysms, especially tsunami, given Harumi’s proximity to the bay, and soil liquefaction, given it is built on reclaimed land.

“At the end of the day, what people care about is whether the area is truly comfortable to live in and resistant to disasters,” Ide said.

Yasuhiko Nakajo, a professor who heads Meikai University’s Faculty of Real Estate Sciences, meanwhile suggested the area actively explore the possibility of morphing into what he described as a hub of international activities.

Thanks to its close proximity to Haneda airport and the Tokyo International Exhibition Center in the popular Odaiba district, he said, Harumi should harness these advantages to court more foreign visitors, whether tourists or businesspeople.

“We don’t want to be remembered as the generation who had a wonderful opportunity like the Olympics and let it slip away as a mere temporary boom among a limited circle of real estate and construction firms and workers,” Nakajo said.