Sky’s No Limit

Last week the government released population figures for 2017 and to nobody’s surprise the Tokyo metropolitan area was the only region that saw any increases. Given that Japan’s overall population is dropping, it was notable that the three prefectures surrounding the capital saw increases, even if they were very slight.

It would be interesting to know how much of these increases were attributable to the construction boom in so-called tower mansions, or high-rise condos. Two weeks ago, NHK aired a look at the boom that attempted to weigh the merits of high-rise living with the demerits. Until recently, most of the tower condos, which the program defines as a building of at least 20 floors, or 60 meters, were being built on the Tokyo waterfront, but now they are popping up like spring bamboo in satellite cities like Kawasaki, Saitama, and Kashiwa, because local governments are encouraging developers to build them with subsidies. In 1999, the year before national building regulations were eased, there were only 150 tower condos nationwide, but by 2016 there were about 800.

The NHK show was particularly interesting to us, not only because we once lived in a high-rish in the shitamachi district of Tokyo (we rented, though), but also in the past resided in the two cities that were profiled in the report, Kawasaki and Saitama. In the case of the latter, when we lived there it was before the merger of Urawa and Omiya, and there were no tower condos near Omiya station, one of the biggest transporation hubs on the Kanto plain. Now, within walking distance of the station, there are 2,700 relatively new condo units in skyscrapers, and they’re very popular, it seems. A new building that recently opened has 776 units and they all sold out almost immediately. NHK visited one couple with two kids who bought their 3LDK, just four minutes from the station, for ¥50 million two years ago, which is about ¥10-20 million cheaper than such a place would cost in Tokyo. The wife works in Takadanobaba and the husband in northern Saitama prefecture, so their home is right in the middle. The say they are “100 percent” satisified with their purchase, and NHK attributed the popularity of tower condos to the kind of facilities they offer. This particular building included a gymnasium, a theater room, a music room, hotel rooms for guests, a dance studio, and lots of amenities.

A spokesperson for Saitama City said they were working directly with developers in order to attract more young families to the area. The developers like the idea because the city guarantees land right in front of the station, thus making the condos easy to sell. The fact that the plots of land aren’t that big is no problem because the city has relaxed its own building regulations to allow for high-rises. The program says that many local governments are easing height regulations in order to take advantage of the popularity of tower condos, but from what we gathered they only really seem to be popular in and around Tokyo, which is still overconcentrated as it is. The new tower in question in Saitama cost the developer ¥38 billion to build, of which the city provided ¥4.3 billion, thus raising the question of what people who don’t live in these condos think about their tax money helping a developer. The city representative says that some of the facilities in the condos are open to the public, but he didn’t elaborate. However, the developers in Saitama also have to build parks around the buildings, and those are supposed to be for all residents. This seems like a nice thing, but, as we said, we once lived in Omiya, and the area even around the station had a lot of park land already.

The other area NHK looked at was around Musashi Kosugi Station in Kawasaki, just across the Tama River from Tokyo. The station services three very busy train lines and condo construction has been at a fever pitch for the past ten years. During that time ten towers have been constructed and the population has increased by 30,000 just in terms of the people who moved into them. NHK used Musashi Kosugi to explain the demerits of tower condo life, which starts with the morning commute. Though Tokyo is just a hop, skip, and a jump away, getting to the station is a hassle. Everybody still leaves during rush hour and in the morning foot traffic congestion makes for a scrim of bodies 80 meters deep in front of the ticket wickets. And that doesn’t even count the time these workers waste waiting for the elevators. When we lived in a tower apartment building–38 stories tall–people who commuted had to add at least another 5 minutes to their commute in order to wait for elevators, which get full really fast in a skyscraper. A representative of JR showed NHK how they attempted to widen the platforms on the Nambu line station, but they could only widen it by one meter, which isn’t enough for the crowds in the morning. When they built the station many years ago they never expected it to get that packed.

And that’s generally the main problem with tower condos that are being built in areas that are already established and populated. The Tokyo waterfront, which is all landfill, was pretty much virgin property when the towers started going up, but the area around Musashi Kosugi has always been a popular housing development location, and many current residents are dismayed by the over-building of towers, which block sunlight and add to traffic congestion all around. Long-time residents drew up a petition to demand the local authority not approve any more tower condos, but the city thinks only a minority is against them. Of course, those 30,000 who have moved in recently are all for the condos, even if a few grumble about the commute. And as the city rep said, Kawasaki “can’t afford” to lose any more population–meaning it can’t afford a shrinking tax base. The trouble is that the development is rather uncoordinated. JR took it upon itself to widen station platforms, but such measures should have been worked out by all the parties involved, meaning the city and the developers as well. There should also be coordination with Tokyo, since in most cases that’s where these new tower dwellers work. NHK said that there are 160 new towers being planned for the general Tokyo metro area, which sounds like way too many, especially when you hear that the capital will lose some 3.5 million people by 2040. Right now Japan is suffering from an oversupply of vacant homes due to overbuilding, and it seems likely there will be a lot of empty tower condo units in the future. Right now there’s something very hip and modern about tower living, but we found out that once you become older, living in the sky is no fun. Someday you want to return to earth.

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