TOKYO -- The delay in moving Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world, is jeopardizing plans to redevelop Tokyo's waterfront into a vibrant residential district.
The market was supposed to be torn down and turned into a transport hub with a major tunnel running through it that would connect the city center with the waterfront, where thousands of new condominium units are expected to be converted from athlete's quarters after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
But the delay in moving Tsukiji has thrown the question of when the tunnel will be built into confusion, along with plans for a new bus rapid transit system (BRT) that is supposed to make the waterfront area accessible to downtown.
In December, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike finally announced that a new fish market would open in October 2018 at the Toyosu waterfront district, following repeated delays over concerns about chemical contamination at the new site.
The new time frame, however, barely leaves enough time to redevelop the old market site into a transport hub for the Olympics, as planned.
The transport hub is expected to have enough parking for around 3,000 vehicles, and should be completed in the spring of 2020, just in time for the games. A major road will also pass through the site, though there is not enough time to build the tunnel that had been originally planned.
Effective public transport
That makes it far from certain when a new BRT in the waterfront area will be fully operational. That, in turn, throws into doubt the huge project to develop and sell condominiums from the athlete's village. Without effective public transport, such residential development is an uncertain prospect.
"We cannot sell condos without the BRT, as the athlete's village will become an inaccessible corner of land," said an executive with a major real estate developer involved in the project.
Eleven major developers are involved, including Mitsui Fudosan Residential, Mitsubishi Jisho Residence, Sumitomo Realty & Development, Nomura Real Estate Development.
The new town that would be created on the waterfront after the Olympics would have a population of around 10,000, helping inflate the population of the Harumi bayside area to about 29,000 in 10 years, from 12,000 currently. The huge project envisions creating 24 blocks of 5,600 flats on 18 hectares of land, equivalent to four Tokyo Dome baseball stadiums.
Yet if this ambitious vision is to be realized, the project needs to solve its public transport problem. The project assumes the BRT will be fully operational as planned. But the question of access to central Tokyo remains unresolved.
Initial plans by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government called for the extension of Loop Line 2, a major artery with two or three lanes of traffic going each way around central Tokyo. The extension -- between the downtown Toranomon district, through Tsukiji, to Toyosu -- was to be ready for the Olympics. It also was to have consisted of an underground tunnel between Toranomon and Tsukiji to ease traffic congestion.
The BRT plan assumes the tunnel would be built. The system was to carry a large number passengers on connected buses from the Harumi waterfront on the 10-minute journey to Shimbashi train station, which is well connected to Tokyo's major train and subway lines.
The tunnel would have smoothed the journey due to the absence of traffic signals. Running on a schedule of once every three minutes, the metropolitan government calculates it would initially carry about 2,000 passengers per hour, and eventually, as many as 5,000 per hour.
A forest of condos
But the delay in relocating the Tsukiji market has made it impossible to open the tunnel in time for the Olympics. Instead, only an above-ground stretch of roadway, with a single traffic lane on each side, can be completed.
That makes it difficult to reliably operate the BRT with predictable arrival times, given the large number of traffic signals on the roadway, according to a senior Tokyo government official.
It is not even clear how long after the Olympics it will take for the tunnel to be completed. Construction may be interrupted both before and after the games, a metropolitan government official said.
Developers are hoping to start selling the condo units before the games, aiming to sell more than 4,000 of 5,600 units. But the uncertainty over whether the BRT will be fully operational by the autumn of 2022, when new owners are scheduled to take possession, is causing worries about how this will work out.
As to what other public transportation is in place in the vicinity of the athlete's village, the nearest subway station is Kachidoki on the Toei Oedo subway line, about 25 minutes away on foot.
There is already a forest of condos around this station, and the subway is packed with commuters during rush hour. In the fiscal year ending March 2017, an average of 100,000 people used the station per day, up 40% from a decade earlier.
Overwhelmed traffic systems
Some of the challenges in developing the waterfront have been seen before.
In the 1980s, the metropolitan government wanted to promote construction of office buildings in the area to develop it as a new city subcenter. But that plan did not work out, due to the cancellation of the 1996 World City Expo in Tokyo, which was expected to jump start the plan.
High-rise condo construction in the area subsequently took off, and it shifted from being a business district to a residential one, as a trend took hold of more people choosing to live in the city.
The rapid increase in condo construction effectively overwhelmed traffic systems in the waterfront area. While there is a plan afoot to build a new subway from near Tokyo Station, the BRT is seen as more immediate solution that would be ready for the Olympics.
Other major world cities have faced nettlesome development challenges with their own Olympics. London successfully redeveloped its East End for its summer games in 2012. On the other hand, Rio de Janeiro's athlete's village has become a millstone due to the failure to sell off many of the condo units following the 2016 games.
With the Olympics returning to Tokyo after 56 years, will the city's post-games redevelopment experience be closer to that of London or Rio? The delay in moving Tsukiji has cast a long shadow over that question.