A few days ago, members of the Wang (王) family, whose house was forcibly demolished last year to make way for the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), held a press conference and called for the suspension of all judicial proceedings related to the case until a constitutional interpretation has been made.
Prior to this, other residents who have consented to the project held a protest at the Taipei City Government shortly before the Lunar New Year, complaining that this would be their fourth “chilly Lunar New Year’s Eve,” as they have been rendered homeless for the past four years.
The Taipei City Government was hit by a torrent of criticism after it enforced the demolition of the Wangs’ house in March last year. Consequently, now that the Wang family has erected a prefabricated building on the construction site, the city is taking a hands-off approach, calling it a “private property rights dispute” in which the government should not interfere.
The dispute remains unresolved, while social resources are being squandered on it. The ongoing case has also become an impediment to progress on other urban renewal projects, which many people would like to see go ahead.
Despite the government’s claims, Wenlin Yuan is by no means just a private construction project. The city government, believing the plan to be in the public interest, gave its approval for a “transfer of rights” and for the block of houses adjoining Wenlin Road to be pulled down and rebuilt, on the grounds that the majority of residents had given their consent.
The government went so far as to help clear the way for the construction company by using forcible demolition, which is a serious infringement of people’s rights.
According to the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例), if a construction company abandons an urban renewal project when it is half built, the government is obliged to take over to ensure that the urban renewal is fully implemented. The current dispute over Wenlin Yuan is, therefore, not a simple matter of a “private property rights dispute.” It is one in which the government must find a way to intervene fairly so as to reconcile the interests of the parties involved.
Following last year’s clash between protesters and police over the demolition, the city government invited the authors of this article to serve on an urban renewal advisory panel in the capacities of convener and panel member. The panel was given the task of drawing up provisional legal amendments, and having accomplished this task, it was dissolved.
However, we are dismayed over the government’s current passive approach to handling the case. If it allows antagonism and confrontation to continue unabated, not only will the original residents of the Wenlin site remain homeless, but urban renewal throughout Taipei will grind to a halt. That is not what we had hoped for when we served on the advisory panel.
If judicial litigation is chosen as the means for resolving the dispute, it is likely to drag on for up to 10 years and that is not something that most people want to see happen.
On the other hand, if the city government can assist the disputing parties to resolve their differences, it would not only put an end to social conflict and prevent further clashes, but would dispel people’s doubts about the government’s political resolve and the reason why it took the step to demolish the Wang family’s house. Those in doubt today could become supporters of the government’s approach toward urban renewal.
Therefore, the Wenlin case should be at the top of the Taipei City Government’s agenda.
Consultation is one of the core concepts of urban renewal. Up to now, a consultative mechanism has been missing in the Wenlin Yuan case, so now is the time to build one.
Of course, the city government has become a party to the dispute by carrying out the forced demolition and it has lost the trust of the original parties in the case. However, it does not have to play the role of mediator; it could instead take the lead in promoting mediation by inviting impartial and objective people to form a team of mediators. The members of such a committee would have to be acceptable to the disputing parties.
Through a series of mediation meetings, there could be a chance to unravel this tangled dispute, or even set a model for consultation in urban renewal.
Consultation also requires that parties to a dispute are willing to make compromises, since resolution of a conflict needs a little give and take. For mediation to work, there can be no preconditions. Each side must be willing to give something up.
All possible solutions should be considered, including rebuilding the house on its original site, rebuilding it somewhere else, resettling the family elsewhere, persuading them to participate in the urban renewal project, compensating them for the damage they have suffered, and so on.
None of these possibilities should be mandatory options, and each should be assessed by impartial mediators so as to analyze their advantages and disadvantages, and their feasibility. Only then will acceptable solutions be found.
In commercial negotiations, information-based assessments such as these are extremely important. Only on the basis of a full and accurate cost-benefit analysis can the negotiating parties fully consider their own interests and avoid having unrealistic expectations in place of rational thinking.
Gathering the needed information will cost money. Given that the residents in the Wenlin Yuan dispute are at an economic disadvantage compared with the construction company, it would be reasonable to ask the company to take the lead in covering at least part of the costs of a professional assessment.
If sufficient information leads to a solution to the dispute, it will prove to be a worthwhile investment.
The government should be more proactive and farsighted by setting up a platform for consultation, so that the parties to the dispute can use that platform to seek a resolution to the conflict.
If not, it will give people the impression that Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) is incapable of solving problems. More than that, it will interfere with the progress of urban renewal, and that will not be in the interest of the public.
Chang Chin-oh is a professor in the Department of Land Economics at National Chengchi University. Tsai Chih-yang is an attorney at law.
Translated by Julian Clegg