About a decade ago Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, who was then mayor of Taipei, went on an inspection tour of the Keelung and Danshui rivers that bound the northern and eastern edges of the capital. As he neared the bridge that links the Dazhi district with Taipei proper a local official reported that a young woman had attempted suicide a few days previously by jumping into the river. “What happened?” Ma asked. “Oh, she’s fine,” the official replied, “She quickly swam back out because the river’s stench was unbearable.”
These days the riverside in Dazhi is a 10-acre park where joggers and children playing baseball relax in lush, grassy fields. Behind that are row upon row of new luxury apartments that testify to the dramatic transformation Dazhi has undergone in the past few years, ever since the river was cleaned up and transport links built to integrate it with the rest of Taipei.
Dazhi, which literally means “the big straight” in Chinese, is split into two distinct areas by the central Bei An Road. The older part, to the west, was formerly a quaint, quiet outskirts community hugging a large military headquarters. The area to the east of Bei An Road, however, was for years a wilderness of large, empty plots of land awaiting redevelopment because the nearby river’s pollution and its remoteness made it all but unliveable.
Despite being just a hop across the river from the central areas of Taipei, Dazhi was surprisingly inaccessible and its development came later than more distant areas such as Tienmu, an area further north that has long been popular with expatriates. This was largely because of the Songshan airport, a 2.5km-long traffic barrier that sat directly south of the Dazhi bridge. Without a way of cutting across the airport, motorists and buses travelling from Taipei had to detour around it to reach the Dazhi bridge.
Amanda Chang, a government worker, first visited Dazhi as a university student nearly a decade ago. “At that time I found the area really attractive but it was just too inconvenient to live there,” she says. She and her husband moved from southern Taipei to Dazhi three years ago, after a tunnel was dug underneath Songshan airport. They were attracted by “its greenery and parks; it’s less crowded with cars so it’s easy for me to go jogging or cycling after work”.
Also, there has always been a host of small restaurants and family-owned eateries in the older, western part of Dazhi. The variety of cuisine on offer has expanded from traditional Taiwanese snacks and noodles to include Middle Eastern, American and other restaurants.
The neighbourhood’s transport was further improved last year when Taipei city expanded its subway network and built a line north into Dazhi and beyond, to a new science park in Neihu and an international exhibition centre further to the east in Nangang. “I think improving the river quality was the most important factor [to the development of Dazhi],” explains an aide to Ma. “Fixing transport certainly helped, but it would not have had much effect if people didn’t want to live there.”
From 2002 to 2009 Dazhi’s population grew from 24,179 to 26,035. Within that, however, the population of the newer, eastern area of Dazhi has nearly doubled from 3,408 to 5,928 over the same period. Chang suggests some of them will have been attracted by the opening of the Miramar Entertainment Park, a six-storey cinema and shopping complex capped with a giant Ferris wheel that has become a second landmark for Taipei after the 101 Tower. The complex had just opened when she moved to the area “and all around it were just empty construction sites”.
These provided rare opportunities for commercial and residential developers to acquire large swaths of land so near to central Taipei and they have since been transformed into megastores, a golf driving range and baseball batting cages and some of the more extravagantly named and designed luxury apartments in the city.
There is Emperor’s View Royal Gardens, a river-facing building with a sleek, black façade where Morris Chang, head of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s biggest contract chipmaker, famously created a duplex by buying up two floors and combining the units. Chang, who purchased the flats early in 2002, has already more than doubled his investment as house prices in the area have risen, according to property agents. There are apartment complexes named Roman Holiday, Karuizawa (after an upscale mountain resort in Japan) and others that appear positively baroque after architects apparently tried to fit as many European-looking statues and Corinthian columns as possible on to the outer wall.
The newest to be completed is The Museum, which manages to look something like a cross between the British Museum and communist-era apartments but costs more than T$1m (£21,000) per ping (the local measurement unit for house sizes, which equals 3.3 sq metres).
Real estate agents say that despite developers building new apartments as quickly as they can in Dazhi, the demand for homes there is such that prices have risen almost nonstop over three years. Gip Tsai of property consultant Herald Leader says that while an apartment in the area failed to sell at T$480,000 per ping last February, they now regularly sell for between T$900,000 and T$1.3m per ping. A one-bedroom starter apartment in Dazhi costs about T$9.75m, according to Tsai. Families now have more options as former government housing, mostly two-bedroom homes, has come on to the market at about T$15m for 100 sq metres while a privately developed flat of a similar size would cost T$19.5m. More luxurious abodes for company executives, however, are significantly more expensive, and cost T$130m for a 430 sq metre flat.
Despite rising prices, “Dazhi is still relatively cheap compared with other, more traditional, upscale neighbourhoods,” says Tsai, who cites a recent transaction in the Xinyi district, next to the Taipei 101, where the selling price per ping was T$1.7m. “There is still a lot of empty land awaiting development in Dazhi, which is not the case in more central areas in Taipei, so this has helped to keep prices there from rising as high,” he says.
Vivian Wei, also a government worker, who has lived in public housing in Dazhi for the past nine years, says life has become much more convenient. “Before I had to drive [to Xinyi district] if I wanted to watch a movie, now I can walk to the cinema and often I’ll go to a movie after work before I go home,” she says. “The best part is that even though it is an urban area I can still see the hills and at night when I go home it is very quiet and peaceful. But it is a bit crazy how much housing prices have risen. I think a lot of it is speculation because many of the apartment [buildings] seem to have a low occupancy rate. When I pass by the luxury apartments after work it’s quite rare if there are three or more units with lights on,” she says.
Robin Kwong is the FT’s Taipei correspondent
Herald Leader, tel: +886 2 27110077, www.herald-leader.com.tw