Photo/Illutration Gingko trees line a street in Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Gaien district. (Tairiku Kurosawa)

The Japanese arm of an advisory body to UNESCO has called on the Tokyo metropolitan government to review a redevelopment project for the scenic Meiji Jingu Gaien district on grounds it could result in significant environmental damage.

The Japan ICOMOS National Committee, a panel of experts involved in cultural heritage preservation, urged the metropolitan government’s environmental impact assessment council to make a fresh appraisal of the private-sector project, which would transform the district renowned for its historical and leafy features.

Opinions from a broad spectrum of the public should be considered in planning and executing the project to avoid ruining the scenic beauty of the site.

The district’s development dates to 1926 when an artificial forest was created on the former site of the Aoyama parade ground.

The project led by industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa (1840-1931) and other prominent individuals attracted cash donations and trees from around the nation.

The plan was influenced by the City Beautiful movement, an international urban planning reform philosophy in the early 20th century, according to experts.

The district, aside from being a cultural legacy from Japan’s modernization drive, is also a sports hub.

The redevelopment project involves four entities: real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan Co., Meiji Jingu shrine, the Japan Sport Council and trading house Itochu Corp.

Meiji Jingu Stadium and Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium will be torn down and their locations switched in a phased manner.

The project also features the development of a complex of commercial buildings, hotels and sports facilities.

The plan envisioned preserving 340 trees, transplanting 70 and cutting down 971.

With these steps, the project is designed to “create a new beautiful cityscape.”

Last year, the metropolitan government’s urban planning council approved the blueprint.

But around 51,000 people affixed their signatures to a petition calling for a review of the project that would result in 70 percent of the trees in the area being cut down. The petition was submitted to the metropolitan government.

In response, the developers proposed to reduce the number of trees to be felled to 556 during a meeting of the environmental impact assessment council.

Last month, the metropolitan government published an environmental impact assessment report on the plan.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the report was based on opinions expressed by experts at the council meeting.

“We will proceed with the process strictly in accordance with the ordinance,” she said.

A key issue is whether a famous line of gingko trees will be preserved. The new baseball stadium will be located close to the gingko trees.

Alarm has been expressed that construction of the stadium could harm the roots of the trees.

In submitting a request for a reassessment of the environmental impact, ICOMOS Japan pointed to numerous errors in the metropolitan government’s report.

It contends that felling and transplanting so many trees will “destroy the ecosystem.”

The panel says the report does not mention the critical condition of the tree line nor offer scientific data about the issue. It also says the results of an investigation into the roots remain unpublished.

ICOMOS Japan contends the environmental impact assessment report is based on an accumulation of data that cannot be verified.

The developers pledged to adjust the plan if detailed investigations reveal any possible negative impact.

If the gingko trees, the centerpiece of the district’s landscape, die off, the scenic beauty of the area will be seriously compromised.

It is critical to ensure that careful surveys are undertaken, verifiable and detailed information is disclosed and convincing assessment procedures are followed.

The redevelopment project involves a complicated cluster of architectural and functional features.

It envisages two skyscrapers--one 190 meters high and the other 185 meters high--being built along with the creation of more open space and upgrades of sports facilities.

A nonpartisan group of lawmakers is lobbying for a rethink of the project. 

The future of the district, a much loved park area visited by numerous people daily, is a matter that is highly public in nature.

The blueprint for reshaping the district should be based on as many diverse opinions as possible to ensure the greenery that offers space for recreation in central Tokyo will be handed down to future generations.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 3