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January 13, 2011

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'Generals' Mansions' to be restored

HISTORIC villas - dubbed an architectural treasure by city officials - are to be restored to their former glories.

Illegal sheds and homes that have sprung up around the complex, nicknamed the "Generals' Mansions" in Yangpu District, will be removed. Demolition on the site on Shiguang Road in the city's northeast will begin with sheds on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

These were rented out as garbage recycling stations, said an official surnamed Wang of Wujiaochang Town. Negotiations with owners have begun, Wang added.

The Generals' Mansions were built more than 60 years ago and consisted of 36 villas blending Eastern and Western architectural styles.

They were former residences of high-ranking Kuomintang officials, which led to the neighborhood's military nickname.

Some 34 villas remain and were included in the city's list of protected historic architectural sites in 2006. But their current state will disappoint sightseers attracted by their history.

A Shanghai Daily investigation found that the villas are now surrounded by makeshift housing and sheds, products of years of illegal expansion and construction, occupying the villas' former gardens.

These unauthorized buildings are centers for garbage recycling operations, dorms for street food vendors, and even house a barber's shop.

"The environment of this area has been ruined," said a middle-aged resident surnamed Li. "It is overpopulated as migrant workers keep moving in but there is no one taking care of the neighborhood."

Li, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, claimed residents suffer from noise, disorder and safety problems blamed on migrant workers, and that conflicts are growing.

Some seniors said only about 30 percent of the original residents still live in the mostly two-storied villas. The rest have moved out but collect rent on the properties, including illegal housing outside the villas.

While each villa has about seven to eight units, some landlords have subdivided their apartments into several smaller sections to rent to different tenants, Li said.

The apartment above Li's, about 25 square meters, is subdivided into two rooms for two couples and the attic above is let to another couple, he said.

The situation is worse inside the illegally built houses surrounding the villas. Although only a dozen square meters large, each can be home to several migrant workers.

Tensions came to a head on November 29 last year when a woman was stabbed to death in a dispute over noise. The 42-year-old woman who was killed had set up brick sheds along Minjing Road outside the neighborhood and rented them to garbage recyclers.

The alleged attacker, a man surnamed Wu, had argued with her over noise and fire safety concerns about the garbage recycling site.

The town government has now decided to begin pulling down these illegal buildings next month.

However, neighborhood officials concede they face a tough job. "Our past experiences show that landlords only care about making as much money as possible and can't be persuaded to voluntarily demolish illegal buildings," an official said.

A local architectural protection expert said despite the difficulties, demolition is urgent for the preservation of the villas. "The government must take a strong line and demolish illegal structures that are endangering a valuable complex," said Wang Anshi, a member of the city's historic building protection committee.

Over the years, nearly all the available space outside the villas has been grabbed, said a neighborhood committee official.


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