TOKYO — Razed a century ago by an earthquake and fire and then again by bombing during World War II, Tokyo is constantly recreating itself.
These days, multibillion-dollar redevelopment projects are replacing aging downtown neighborhoods of tiny two-story homes and apartments, and in some cases cherished green spaces, with massive mixed office, retail and residential centers designed to help the city burnish its status as a desirable home for global business.
Mori Building, one of the biggest players in this effort led mainly by private developers, is putting the finishing touches on two big projects. Toranomon Hills Station Tower, a skyscraper with office space that’s part of the earlier Mori Toranomon Hills project, is opening Friday.
Mori JP Tower, a 64-story, 325-meter (1,067-foot) -tall skyscraper that will be Japan’s tallest structure, is part of Mori Building’s 600 billion yen ($6 billion) Azabudai Hills project, which is set to open in November.
More projects are in the works.
Shingo Tsuji, CEO of Mori Building, says he hopes to help Tokyo compete as a world city and destination for foreign investment. It’s a goal that has been gaining urgency as the Japanese economy has slowed while the population shrinks and quickly ages.
“When the world is globalizing, everyone is doing business worldwide, not just locally. People choose the city they’re going to make the Asian hub, be it Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore. If Tokyo gets chosen, people will gather here, and it can keep growing,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Tsuji took over as CEO from Minoru Mori, son of the Mori real estate empire’s founder Taikichiro Mori, in 2011. He inherited from Minoru Mori, who died in 2012, a vision for projects that are transforming key parts of downtown Tokyo with tower redevelopments packed with fashionable offices, luxury apartments and hotels and boutiques, surrounded by urban gardens designed to help Tokyo compete with world-class cities like New York and London.
“From 30 years ago, Minoru Mori foresaw competition heating up among cities, rather than among nations,” said Tsuji, who counts Antoni Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier among his favorite architects.
Japan relies heavily on private companies like Mori Building in redeveloping urban areas. In the past, public-led planning was scant, with much of how a Japanese city grows and changes seemingly left to chance in the rush to rebuild. That means that vast parts of the city are crammed with tiny buildings just an arm’s length apart, along alleys too narrow for ambulances to pass through.
With growing numbers of buildings abandoned as their owners pass away or move to assisted living facilities, parts of downtown Tokyo are being transformed with newer, much taller buildings. Mori has spearheaded many major redevelopments that have replaced middle class housing and small shops with luxury high-rise towers.
Mori properties are chockablock with amenities, but they are not necessarily spacious or affordable. Rents in Mori residences range from 380,000 yen ($2,500) a month for a 46 square meter (495 square foot) studio apartment to 1.47 million yen ($10,000) a month for a 139 square meter (1,500 square foot) two-bedroom apartment.
That compares with about 170,000 yen ($1,200) average rent for a small two-bedroom apartment in suburban neighborhoods within an hour’s commute from downtown.
Along with Tokyo’s relatively low crime rate and its affordable and ample public transportation, such facilities bring an air of orderly affluence, strong selling points for a city of 39 million people that help compensate for drawbacks like relatively high taxes, urban congestion and costly international schools.
“There is great potential, especially if we work on the negatives,” said Tsuji.
Christian Dimmer, associate professor of urban studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, calls Mori’s approach “a template for redevelopment.”
But he acknowledges there are drawbacks in replacing humble, lively neighborhoods with their pocket parks, shrines and alleys with towers of glass and steel. The environment in Mori-developed projects like Roppongi Hills or Toranomon Hills is worlds apart from Tokyo’s leafy Yanaka area, for example, which avoided major damage during World War II and retains generations-old store fronts and wooden houses with tiled roofs.
“The pluralistic, small-scale, democratic city in which many owned land, and had a stake, is being replaced by a carefully manicured landscape of consumption, owned and managed by a few powerful corporations,” Dimmer said in an interview.
Azabudai Hills will house 3,500 people and businesses employing some 20,000 people, a museum and the prestigious British School.
Mori says it will use zero-emissions renewable energy and is set to win a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating, the highest certification for green buildings.
Tsuji stressed that Mori buildings, designed to withstand strong earthquakes, can provide public benefits in the seismically active nation. The various projects can provide shelter for up to 14,000 people and supply 360,000 meals during disasters.
Mori’s status as an unlisted, privately held company means its disclosures about the profitability of its projects are limited.
Its 29-story luxury apartment building Motoazabu Hills, completed in 2002, has a bulging shape that was inspired by a tree. Roppongi Hills, with its 54-story Mori Tower, has an observation deck offering a panorama of Tokyo. In 2008, Mori completed the Shanghai World Financial Center, famous for looking like a bottle opener. It has 101 floors above ground and three floors underground.
Kei Minohara, an urban planner who knew the late Minoru Mori, said he respects his achievement but wonders about tall buildings in which residents remain strangers, rarely interacting with each other.
Life should be about community, he said, but “That is what happens when the defining of lifestyles is left to private developers.”
Yuri Kageyama is on X, formerly Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama