National

Yokohama neighborhood seeks to put lid on condos

Is it possible for people to agree on what beauty is? As far as landscapes are concerned, the answer appears to be no.

In a series of legal battles over new construction plans, judges have repeatedly rejected arguments for preservation of scenery, saying they are “abstract and subjective.”

Right now, residents of the Yamate district in Yokohama are fighting to break this trend. They are opposing the construction of two five-story condominiums to be built in the heart of their community. They fear the complexes will destroy their district’s long-held harmony.

“Urban condominium complexes will not suit the landscape we have preserved for over 100 years,” Yamate resident Naoko Murata claimed. “I decided to live in this area because I love Yamate’s look.”

A long, proud history

Yamate developed as a residential district with schools a few years after Yokohama opened its doors to the outside world in 1859, though most of the buildings currently standing were rebuilt after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

Still, Western-style houses, churches and schools designed by famous architects, including Czechoslovakian Jan Josef Svagr and American J.H. Morgan, give the area overlooking the port of Yokohama a sophisticated and exotic air.

The construction of apartments, which began on a massive scale in the high-growth period of the 1960s, has been as threatening to the district’s harmony as an earthquake.

However, the current battle, which pits Yamate residents against the Yokohama Municipal Government and four land developers, is the biggest of all.

The residents are particularly concerned about the size of the condominium complexes. They will sit on a 13,000-sq.-meter plot and have 224 units, in stark contrast to the single homes and small apartment buildings that account for most of the residences.

The city of Yokohama has legally recognized the historical value of the Yamate area. It designated the 105-hectare district as a scenic zone in 1972 to protect its harmony from the apartment boom. As a result, residents have been subject to various regulations, including the compulsory planting of trees on private plots and a 10-meter height limit on houses.

Policies gone awryResidents now are questioning the effectiveness of the city’s policies. A height limit of 15 meters is being applied to the condominium structures, which are slated to be built on land that the St. Joseph International School occupied for nearly a century until June 2000. The developers have designed their structures to be 14.99 meters high.

Local residents are taking issue with the height exception, which applied to the school, now that the school has been razed. They are demanding that the condominium buildings be only three-story structures, typically 10 meters tall. However, city officials say height limits remain the same for new buildings on the same land unless the relevant ordinance is revised.

The developers insist that they tried their best to make the condominiums match their surroundings in terms of design and that there is no need to lower the height of the buildings. As a result, settlement talks mediated by the city between residents and the developers have failed.

The developers said disputes erupt every time they plan new buildings.

“Japanese people have a strong tendency to protect their interests” and exclude newcomers, said Hideki Yano of Sumitomo Corp., one of the developers.

Other communities trying to preserve the visual and environmental harmony of their neighborhoods are also fighting losing battles.

Because the straightforward approach to preserve their landscapes has failed, they have adopted roundabout arguments.

These include questioning the safety of new buildings, or claiming residents face physical and psychological damage from such factors as having their access to sunshine blocked or the feeling that new development is hemming them in.

Yet even in cases in which such arguments were accepted, they only resulted in compensation, not a halt to construction. Courts have never ordered a developer to halt or drastically change a building plan.

However, a ray of hope for communities came in December.

In a case in which residents of the western Tokyo suburb of Kunitachi sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for approving the construction of a 14-story building, the Tokyo District Court said enjoying the beauty of a nearby street is a “legal advantage” protected by the Building Standard Law. Although a higher court later reversed the ruling, the lower court was the first to recognize a landscape as an asset.

Playing by the rulingsHowever, Tetsu Komoda, a lawyer for the Yamate residents who was also involved in the Kunitachi case, believes more needs to be done.

“The Kunitachi case was exceptional and is not the one that will change the trend,” he said. Still, Yamate residents have not given up the fight.

They are now demanding that the local government revoke the building permit for what the residents term as “prisonlike” structures.

Hide Ara, a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba who specializes in construction conflicts, agrees with Komoda, saying enjoyment of an environment has never been acknowledged as a right.

He does believe, however, that setting objective criteria for scenic beauty can be possible. “Personally, I feel that there is a shared sense of beauty we have in our daily lives,” he said. “No one, for example, would accept untidily parked bicycles or a flood of utility poles.”

While public awareness of the issue of structural harmony or landscape has gradually been heightened, the government tends to narrow its scope of conservation by protecting only buildings and natural areas that are on national lists, according to experts, who term this a pinpoint policy.

Western solutions

In contrast, Western countries have employed zoning codes and other approaches to preserve an area’s environment or structural harmony.

Cities are divided into many districts and each has different restrictions on building heights, lot coverage, population density and other factors.

Italy and Switzerland have both recognized environmental protection as a constitutional right, according to Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor of law at Hosei University.

Other countries, including Britain, France, Germany and the United States, have laws that oblige local authorities to take landscapes and cityscapes into consideration when drawing up development plans.

“We say Japan is still at the starting point in this field,” Yamate resident Chiyoko Kimura said. “When you travel in Europe, you are impressed by how well such old landscapes are preserved.”

Pointing to the lack of precedent, lawyer Komoda admitted that it will be difficult to block the construction of the condominiums, but he said, “I look at this case as one that will be a leading example in landscape conservation litigation.”

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