Culture

In the shadow of giants: Are high-rise condominiums in Japan destroying local communities?

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Ryuzo Oyama's family has been living in Tsukishima since his grandfather's generation. | ALEX MARTIN
Ryuzo Oyama’s family has been living in Tsukishima since his grandfather’s generation. | ALEX MARTIN

Ryuzo Oyama and his family have been living in Tsukishima, a neighborhood on a reclaimed island in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, since his grandfather’s generation.

Known for its maze of narrow alleys, wooden nagaya row-houses and eateries offering monjayaki (a local pan-fried concoction of batter, vegetables and meat or seafood), the area offers visitors a whiff of Showa Era (1926-89) nostalgia despite being situated on prime real estate in the center of the capital.

That scenery is disappearing fast, however, and Oyama will likely be forced to relocate as the entire block he lives in is slated to be razed for a slick 50-story, 190-meter-tall, 750-unit residential tower scheduled for completion in 2024 — one of several similar redevelopment projects in the neighborhood that is threatening to destroy Tsukishima’s distinct shitamachi (literally, “downtown”) allure.

“I only learned about the project in May 2017, when developers showed us a slide,” says Oyama, a 68-year-old retiree and former sushi chef. “We can’t live elsewhere in Tsukishima since the rent is so expensive, so we’ll just have to move out of the area and find somewhere cheaper.”

Days gone by: Tsukishima, a neighborhood on a reclaimed island in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, is among many districts being gentrified by giant condominium projects popping up in the most populous city in the world. | ALEX MARTIN
Days gone by: Tsukishima, a neighborhood on a reclaimed island in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, is among many districts being gentrified by giant condominium projects popping up in the most populous city in the world. | ALEX MARTIN

Maintenance costs

Tsukishima is among many districts being gentrified by giant condominium projects popping up in the most populous city in the world. As of the end of March, there were 300 so-called tower mansions — residential buildings that are more than 20 stories high — being constructed or planned for completion in Japan after 2019, according to Real Estate Economic Institute Co. That translates into 114,079 new housing units, of which 52.5 percent will be placed in the 124 buildings planned within Tokyo’s 23 wards.

The demand for high-rise condominiums is fueled in part by younger, high-income families and tech entrepreneur- types wanting more upscale amenities in areas closer to shopping and dining districts.

But critics warn that, in addition to disrupting local communities, these skyscrapers may become economic liabilities as the population grays. What’s more, they may make evacuations more difficult in the event of a natural disaster.

Even the population of Tokyo, which has seen an influx of new residents while the nation’s overall population falls, is forecast to peak in 2025, the same year all 6.5 million of Japan’s baby boomers become 75 or older. Meanwhile, rural depopulation has seen nearly 8.5 million abandoned homes dotting the suburbs and the rest of the country, with that figure estimated to soar to around 21.47 million by 2033, according to Nomura Research Institute.

“There are two main concerns involving tower mansions from an owner’s perspective,” housing analyst Hidetaka Yoneyama says. “First is the expensive maintenance and repair fees compared to standard apartment buildings. Second is the difficulty in reaching consensus on decisions involving the property due to the large number of owners.”

Since Japanese real estate values land over property, the average life of a condominium is relatively short at around 40 to 50 years, after which extensive repairs become necessary to prevent them from becoming derelict. To salvage the property’s value, large-scale maintenance, known as daikibo shūzen, typically takes place every 10 to 15 years, the first round usually involving the exterior, while plumbing, wiring, replacing elevators and other key infrastructure are tackled in subsequent rounds.

Buying a condominium will automatically make its owners part of the building’s management association, typically led by a rotating board of directors who make decisions based on management bylaws.

Members of these associations each chip in a monthly fee for common repair funds to pay for necessary costs, but there have been numerous cases in which the sums fell short, prompting residents to dish out a one-time fee or collectively seek a bank loan.

When the building’s life is up, owners can decide to tear it down and build a new one, although this process needs the approval of 80 percent of the residents and requires each household to prepare millions of yen to cover costs — the primary reason why there have only been a few hundred examples in the past despite there being around 800,000 apartment buildings in the nation that are more than 40 years old.

Yoneyama says that while these are common symptoms plaguing condominiums in Japan, the problem could be amplified with residential towers because of their large populations and the logistic complexity in coordinating systematic maintenance.

Elsa Tower 55, a 185-meter, 55-story residential skyscraper in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, spent ¥1.2 billion on its first round of repairs. With 650 housing units, that calculates to around ¥1.85 million per unit, roughly twice the amount construction consulting agencies surveyed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport said apartment owners burden.

The project, which began in March 2015, also took two years to complete, far longer than the several months it takes for smaller properties. Since scaffolding can only reach around 50 meters, the rest of the tower’s exterior was repaired using platforms and suspended gondolas, meaning work had to be halted on windy days.

Atsushi Sakaki, a condominium consultant and journalist who has published books sounding the alarm on residential high rises, says that tower mansions are still selling like hotcakes since they tend to retain value and can be sold easily.

But the coming demographic transition, he says, could leave many abandoned by tenants or occupied by elderly pensioners unable to pay the necessary upkeep fees.

“It’s only been around 30 years since tower mansions really began sprouting up in Japan,” he says. “Who knows how much money and time it will take for future repairs? And what will happen if some owners can’t afford the fees and a consensus cannot be achieved among residents regarding what to do?”

Sakaki says owners will start finding out in another 15 years or so, when many of the existing residential towers will be taking on their second round of large-scale maintenance projects, which are generally more expensive than the first round.

Attractive amenities

A small alley in Tsukishima, Chuo Ward, lies in the shadow of a so-called tower mansion. | ALEX MARTIN
A small alley in Tsukishima, Chuo Ward, lies in the shadow of a so-called tower mansion. | ALEX MARTIN

The tower mansion boom can be traced back to 1997, when the government revised the building code to relax the minimum floor area ratios and shadow restrictions, prompting major developers such as Mitsui Fudosan Co., Sumitomo Realty & Development Co. and Mitsubishi Estate Co. to build taller, larger residential buildings in more crowded areas including station fronts. Sakaki says the move reflects the scarcity of land in populous cities such as Tokyo and the incentive to allow for more skyscrapers to provide residential floor space.

From a developer’s standpoint, these properties are highly profitable, with units typically selling 10 to 20 percent more compared to similarly sized apartments in low-rise condominiums, according to Sakaki.

Many of the residential towers are also being constructed as part of redevelopment projects that receive public funding. And since they can fit so many households, developers often promise landowners apartment rooms in the new high-rises in exchange for their land when redeveloping districts.

Meanwhile, buyers are attracted to the great views that overlook the city and amenities such as fitness rooms and event spaces that come with ownership.

“I saw other places than tower mansions when house hunting, but the one I ultimately decided on was extremely well maintained for its age — the interior and exterior were clean, it has features like guest rooms, a lounge, a reading room and a 24-hour concierge,” says Ken Kimura, a retail marketer who bought a two-bedroom apartment in a 26-floor high rise in Kachidoki, a landfill adjacent to Tsukishima in Tokyo Bay that has seen, along with nearby Toyosu, numerous residential skyscrapers constructed in recent years.

“But they’re only attractive for a minute,” Kimura says. “Once you move in, you’re most likely not going to take advantage of any of the perks. I guess they’re only for appearance, although it’s nice to have an attractive place when you have people over.”

While satisfied with his purchase, Kimura says he has one concern: earthquakes. During the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the swaying of residential towers in Tokyo saw elevators shut down, dampening the appetite of prospective buyers. While there have been no reported cases so far of residential towers suffering significant damages due to a quake, experts say a single precedent could significantly dent demand and hurt their value.

“If there’s a big quake in Tokyo I’ll be in trouble,” Kimura says. “But, then again, who won’t be?”

Communities in flux

According to real estate information and consulting provider Tokyo Kantei Co., there were 1,371 tower mansions in Japan as of last year, of which 408 stood in Tokyo’s 23 wards

There are signs, however, that the influx of new residents these buildings bring to communities are pushing the limits of infrastructure.

Musashikosugi, a district in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, has seen a construction boom of residential skyscrapers since around 2008 on land that was previously occupied by factories. With multiple train lines connecting the station to major shopping and business districts in Tokyo, land prices in the area quickly soared and continue to hover at high levels.

Fourteen high rises housing more than 7,000 units have been built in the area as of the end of last year, boosting the population by around 21,000 and severely aggravating the morning rush hour — a phenomenon that was widely reported some years ago as an example of the impact these massive residential projects can have on public transportation.

Chizuko Kamimura, executive director of a network of residents and housing experts striving to solve construction-related disputes, says the bump in population can also transform community associations and local traditions such as festivals and other activities.

“Imagine a residential high rise with 300 units being built in a neighborhood with 500 households. It fundamentally changes how the community works,” she says.

Masaharu Hioki, an attorney who heads the network, questions the apparent lack of long-term, strategic city planning.

“What we’re seeing is young people applying for mortgages to buy new apartments popping up in cities while there is an increasing number of abandoned homes in the countryside. Meanwhile, the excess concentration of population in popular urban areas necessitates the construction of public infrastructure such as schools, which sucks up tax money,” he says. “This is far from an optimum distribution of resources.”

The ongoing redevelopment in Tsukishima is a case study in how Tokyo’s loose zoning rules and appetite for construction projects are changing its landscape.

Chuo Ward approved the urban planning project submitted by developers in February 2018, with construction tentatively scheduled to begin in 2021. A group of residents, however, have opposed the project and have filed a lawsuit seeking the cancellation of the decision, concerned that the neighborhood will lose its distinct vibe.

Fukuji Ishikawa heads a team of residents opposing the construction of a so-called tower mansion in the neighborhood. | ALEX MARTIN
Fukuji Ishikawa heads a team of residents opposing the construction of a so-called tower mansion in the neighborhood. | ALEX MARTIN

“I’ve never lived in an apartment in all of my 70 years,” says Fukuji Ishikawa, who along with Oyama heads the team of residents opposing the construction of the residential tower.

Unlike Oyama, who rents his property, Ishikawa owns the land his house is built on, meaning developers will likely offer him an apartment in the new high rise in exchange for his land.

“I’m very comfortable living where I am now, thank you. Maybe I’ll negotiate some money under the table and move to Hawaii,” he jokes.

Kazuki Kosaka, a Chuo Ward assemblyman and pediatrician who runs a clinic on the same block Ishikawa and Oyama lives on, says many residents only learned of the project during a meeting hosted by developers in May 2017, by which time various plans were already moving ahead.

“And I don’t think people realize that these towers are high-maintenance — even if you are given an apartment in exchange for your land, you still have to pay the monthly management fees and chip into the repair fund, which can be quite a burden for retirees living on their pensions,” he says.

And this isn’t the only tower mansion planned for the area. There are two more residential tower projects ongoing in Tsukishima. Developers are planning to demolish the block just north of Kosaka’s for a 59-story, 199-meter-tall, 1,160-unit skyscraper. A few blocks to the east, construction has already commenced on a 32-story, 503-unit condominium. There are several more projects bulldozing ahead when expanding the scope to include other precincts, eventually bringing the total number of new units in the area to around 14,500.

“There’s an elementary school across the main street that will have to expand its campus to accommodate new families moving in,” Kosaka says. “You would think these projects are developed considering the capacity of the neighborhoods. But, no, it’s the opposite.”

Kazuki Kosaka says many residents only learned of a construction project in the area during a meeting with developers in May 2017. | ALEX MARTIN
Kazuki Kosaka says many residents only learned of a construction project in the area during a meeting with developers in May 2017. | ALEX MARTIN

Kosaka and locals opposing the project have outlined an alternative plan involving the construction of three-story homes that would preserve the quaint alleyways lined with potted plants that Tsukishima is known for.

Officials say these redevelopment projects are necessary from the standpoint of disaster prevention since traditional areas like Tsukishima are inhabited by old, wooden homes prone to fires. But Kosaka says that doesn’t mean they need to be transformed into giant condos.

“We are asking Chuo Ward to introduce a new mechanism that injects tax money into small redevelopment projects rather than these massive ones,” he says. “Tsukishima’s nostalgia is on the verge of being lost.”

The first installment of a two-part series that focuses on property issues affecting urban and rural communities.

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