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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012

News photo
Whole lotta swayin': A diorama of the Tokyo waterfront showing several high-rise building projects. PHILIP BRASOR


High-rise condominium living that's been brought back down to earth


In the months right after last year's March 11 earthquake, sales of condominiums in Tokyo dropped 30 percent compared to the previous year. Much of the drop was in areas surrounding Tokyo Bay, which is basically landfill. Fears of liquefaction caused potential buyers of tower condos to reconsider, and for a while the media surmised that planned high-rise housing projects might be abandoned.

That didn't happen. According to real-estate analysts, the earthquake convinced many commuters to move closer to their workplaces, so if another major one strikes they would be able to get home quickly and without the need for public transportation. And the waterfront is within 5 km of the central business district of the capital.

"This model room was originally slated to open last May," said the salesman as he guided us past a diorama representing the waterfront where his company was building a 52-story condominium. "But after March 11 we suspended sales activities and added features to make the building safer in a quake." He called the building "a postquake tower condominium."

When they were made available in December, the first lot of 250 units "sold out" in a single day. Generally, when a developer says such a thing it means reservations have been made for all the units pending approval of loans. It's most likely, however, that a fair number of those who made reservations will change their minds or get turned down by the bank. Nevertheless, the tower we visited appeared to be popular, and we went to inspect the model rooms for the remaining 350 units, which would be made available this spring.

The building wouldn't be ready until April 2013, which means we were being persuaded to commit without seeing the actual product — normal operating procedure for new condo sales. The model rooms were located in a makeshift building about 15 minutes from the construction site. It also contained sales offices, a wide-screen theater showing promotional videos, dioramas and displays of "options." The cost of this huge promotional effort, which also included broadcast and print advertising, was reflected in the price of the condos: ¥50 million to more than ¥80 million.

The salesman stressed structural features. Standing in front of a scale model of the building with an underground cutaway, he pointed out that in this part of the waterfront only three small patches of ground underwent "slight" liquefaction during the quake. The 170-meter tall building had 63 foundation piles extending 55 meters below ground to support the structure, and since the "liquefaction layer" was only 3 meters deep, the building was totally secure. Moreover, the piles were tapered at the bottom, meaning they couldn't possibly move.

We asked if the structure incorporated menshin technology, which utilizes shock absorbers in the foundation. He said it did not, but it was just as safe and the structure itself lessened the degree of swaying that strong quakes produce in tall buildings. The main problem is not so much structural integrity — Japan's quake-proofing standards are the strictest in the world — but rather falling objects within the apartments, so all the rooms come with anchors in the walls where furniture can be secured.

Other quake-proofing features included columns that offer protection for buried or embedded cables and plumbing; backup generators to operate elevators for up to 20 hours when power is lost; and emergency water supplies of 370 liters for each apartment. The salesman did not point out one new feature that has received a lot of attention in the media: special storage rooms containing emergency supplies. The promotional literature says that the building has storage rooms on nine different floors, but that they don't include food, only equipment such as hard hats, portable toilets and rope.

In 1983 the Japanese government increased the legal capacity rate — the ratio of total floor area to land area — for residential buildings. Growth had started to slow, so then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone wanted to encourage construction and real-estate industries. At the time, most condos were no higher than five stories. However, it wasn't until after the 1985 Plaza Accord inflated land and stock prices that developers took full advantage of deregulation, initiating the first high-rise boom.

Construction slowed by the turn of the millennium because banks became tight with loans. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's deregulation kick encouraged companies to develop land they had been holding onto since the late '80s in hopes the value would go back up, so capacity rates were increased again. Suddenly high-rises were appearing in the suburbs. Tokyo's Edogawa Ward had so many families with kids moving into the tall condos that schools and day-care services in the area couldn't keep up.

By 2010 there were 1,000 high-rise condominiums in Japan comprising 220,000 units, with 463 more being planned. The waterfront, which had been mostly warehouses, had been quickly redeveloped.

High-rises, defined as being more than 19 stories, are huge money-makers for developers, since so many units can be stacked onto a relatively small piece of land. The media, flush with cash from the advertising these companies bought, trumpeted the buildings' heart-stopping views and high style and down-played the drawbacks of tower living. In Britain, the construction of tall public apartments was stopped in the late '60s because of the reported detrimental effect on the mental wellbeing of residents, particularly children.

Japan's most prominent critic of high-rise living is Fumio Aisaka, a Tokai University instructor who published a study in 1994 suggesting that pregnant women living above the 6th floor were three times more likely to suffer miscarriages or stillbirths than pregnant women living on the first or second floor. Though Aisaka's research was commissioned by the health ministry, it was mostly ignored, and in his 2010 book, "Scary: High-Rise Condominium Stories," he writes that he occasionally receives anonymous threatening phone calls to stop publishing.

Aisaka also found that housewives living in tall buildings interact less with their neighbors, and that kids go outdoors less than those living in other types of residences. Children also, he found, become "numb to heights," meaning they develop no fear of them.

One thing high-rises do have going for them is that they tend to keep their value longer than other condos, but this seems to be changing as more high-rises are built. In 2005, the land ministry surveyed tower condo owners, asking if they wanted to live in one the rest of their lives. Among those under 40, less than 35 percent said they wanted to remain in a high-rise, implying that they would likely try to sell someday.

Maintenance is much more expensive for towers than it is for lower buildings, especially with regards to elevators and quake-proofing, but developers set the initial monthly shuhenzi (repair fee) low to attract buyers. These charges can increase dramatically over time. Also, property taxes for high-rise condos are higher than those for low-rise condos.

The problem with basing one's decision to buy a tower condo on a tour of a model show room built at ground level is the lack of real perspective, though the salesman did provide us with an iPad that displayed re-creations of the view one would get from any of the floors. "If you look this way," the salesman said, tapping the screen, "you can see Tokyo Disneyland clearly."

The view is the most immediate appeal of tower living, and people who buy high-rise condos without ever having lived in one have to rely on their imagination. And the imagination can be very powerful — the higher the floor, the greater the demand and the more you pay.

Over time, however, the thrill of being high in the sky may diminish with familiarity, especially if another high-rise is built within your view — and sometimes you may just want to keep your feet on the ground.

Take the high road or stick to lower levels?

Below are some of the demerits of tower living, cited by authors Fumio Aisaka ("Scary: High-rise Condominium Stories") and Taku Shiraishi ("High-rise Syndrome").

Sunlight can be very intense during certain times of the day.

Wind becomes stronger the higher the floor.

Due to reflection off building surfaces, street sounds become louder the higher up you go.

For structural reasons, walls tend to be thinner on higher floors and thus less sound-proof.

Greater mental stress can be caused by long waits for elevators and a general feeling of inconvenience when getting ready to go outside.

Residents living on lower floors can develop neuroses due to the perception that all the building's weight is on top of them.

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