Jakarta Old Town: the Never-Ending Story of a Failed Renovation Project

Indonesia, culture, architecture, Jakarta

The renovation of the historical area of Jakarta – the former Batavia, created by the Dutch almost 400 years ago- is a priority project in tourism, according to a presidential decree. However, it does not go as smooth and easy and works seem to be stuck.

It is a surprise for visitors who come regularly to Jakarta. The historical town around Fatahillah Square should be a true jewel in the crown of the Indonesian capital. With its numerous old style building –some of them being over 250 years old- Kota Tua should have been turned into an attractive area for both locals and visitors. Some changes have been implemented since Indonesian President Joko Widodoi –formerly a Governor of Jakarta- launched a plan to revamp the heart of Batavia back to 2014. As a President, Jakarta historical town has even be listed as a ‘National Priority Project’.

Half a dozen buildings have been renovated, new coffees and eateries popped in some historical buildings. The most recent change has been the renovation of the former Governor Residence of Batavia, a splendid 17th century Dutch structure, which used also to be the city hall as well as a prison. The historical rooms have been opened to the public for many years, showing some of the furniture and painting of the Old Batavia.

The museum was recently modernised –maybe not to the best as old walls are now hidden behind hideous plastic panels- but authorities show at least some commitment to move on.

However, these changes are cosmetic and do not show any real proper urban planning of the area. Looking at Kota Tua (Old Town) in its entire dimension with zoning and a unified image were part of the original plan. However, it has not so far come into anything concrete. Much to the chagrin of visitors, often confronted to a messy environment with “tourist attractions” spreading at any corner. It looks crowded, joyful, colourful (Fatahillah Square welcomed last year an estimated 8.45 million visitors in 2017!) but it does not take really into consideration the historical importance of the area.

“We are facing many various problems. First, stakeholders involve into the “Kota Tua Manajemen”, the body in charge of looking at the area, have different opinion over the old town. They are real divergence between private investors and public institutions about the transformation of the area. And we are more in place to manage what does already exist rather than to take decision”, describes Irfal Guci, Head of Information and Service, Kota Tua Manajemen.

Authorities in charge of the renovation and transformation of “Kota Tua” (Old Town) admit to be powerless to implement in-depth structural changes. Kota renovation and modernisation remain in the hands of private investors as the public hand has very little room to act… Although the Government –with the Ministry in charge of Presidential Priority Projects- recognises the fact that “an authority is needed”, nothing is moving on. “I believe it is because money is the hands mostly of private entrepreneurs. And if they do not want to invest, there is nothing or very little that we can do”, comments Irfal Guci.

Fences along Kali Besar River have restricted for four years the view on some of Jakarta historical buildings...

The lack of decision is then visible: almost four years after starting renovation works, the river walk along the historical Kali Besar canal is still not accessible for pedestrians. Large fences even hide the buildings. As roads are partially blocked, traffic in the area is horrendous while crossing streets for pedestrians is nightmarish. Walking to the Maritime Museum from Fatahillah Street is also a real challenge with no proper pedestrian way, poor lighting as well as tons of garbage along the way…

“We do not have for example the authority to install traffic lights. And if we ask the city of Jakarta to do it, they generally say that this is not a priority”, explains Irfal Guci. “We basically have the duty to clean Fatahillah Square, regulate street vendors’ presence and provide information to visitors. But it is a very limited perimeter for action. We are however not responsible for other areas such as Kali Besar, the old port or the square around the old rail station”, he stresses.

Last year, the private authority in charge of investing into the old town (JOTRI) asked the government to support them to submit the Batavia area to the UNESCO and have it listed a World Heritage.  “We send a letter and we are now waiting for their answer. It should come in the middle of this year”, says Irfal Guci. Although UNESCO has no power to drive renovation, the institution can issue guidelines and also attract more investors. A World Heritage listing would also bring more tourists to Kota Tua, forcing probably authorities to speed up the area’s revitalisation and cleaning the area.

Jakarta government declared many times that Kota Tua renovation would be completed prior to the hosting of the Asian Games 2018 in the Indonesian capital. “The old town should be ready then by August, the streets along the canal being pedestrianized and given back to the public”, tells Irfal Guci. Looking at the progress along the canal, doubts remain. Shame as Kota Tua is probably still one of the most fascinating areas for visitors coming to Jakarta.