One building rises above the others on the Port Moresby skyline.
But the Noble Center, built by a Chinese state-owned company to be the country’s tallest building, stands empty.
The 23-story tower has been deemed uninhabitable after more than 70 flaws were discovered, which regulators say threaten the building and life safety.
The documents obtained by the ABC describe dozens of serious issues, including mechanical, electrical and fire safety issues.
The flaws are repeatedly labeled as “highly illegal”, “non-compliant”, “poorly installed” and “dangerous”.
PNG is at the center of a geopolitical contest for influence currently raging in the Pacific between nations such as China, the United States and Australia.
While Australia remains PNG’s biggest aid donor, China has been providing infrastructure projects, road improvements, loans and medical assistance for years.
But the uninhabitable skyscraper has raised concerns about the quality and benefits of some of the aid and investment provided.
A symbol of “friendship” between China and PNG
The Noble Center was built by China Railway Construction Engineering Group (PNG) Real Estate Co at a time when China’s growing presence in the country was attracting considerable attention.
In 2017, the tower was touted as a symbol of “friendship between the two nations”.
“We assure the people of Papua New Guinea that as a public company and guided by the Belt and Road Policy, our company is confident in the economy of Papua New Guinea and will support permanently the economic development of the country”, declared the director general of the development. , Shengwei Li, told local media in 2017.
He said it was the “biggest foreign investor project in Papua New Guinea’s property sector” and would be Port Moresby’s “tallest landmark”.
In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Port Moresby for a state visit, arriving days before other world leaders attending the APEC summit.
The company said it invested $95 million in the project, which was developed as a partnership with PNG Ports Corporation, a local public entity.
PNG Ports previously said China Railway Construction Engineering Group (PNG) Real Estate Co would build the tower on its land, and it would own the top two floors and contribute “a minor cost” to the joint venture.
In court documents seen by the ABC, the company said PNG Ports had to pay a “certain installment amount up to an estimate [$15 million] was paid to acquire the entire two levels” as part of an agreement signed in 2015.
But the dream of a twinkling tower on the Port Moresby skyline seems to have quickly turned into a nightmare.
The ‘beautiful and glittering’ building with 75 reported flaws
Posts on the Noble Centre’s Facebook page in 2020 advertised office space, describing the building as “beautiful and glistening” and promising potential tenants that it could “speed up your business” and “enhance your life”.
But in September last year, the National Capital District Building Board wrote to say the building’s certificate of occupancy had been revoked.
The letter, obtained by the ABC, said the council had no other choice “in the interests of the safety of the public and immediate tenants”.
The decision was made after the PNG Ports Corporation ordered a technical report be carried out on the building, given growing concerns about its quality.
Among the dozens of construction defects listed were electrical panels that were “not up to code and standards”, internal power outlets installed outside, “poorly installed” electrical systems and exposed conduit in the fire zones, which have been described as “highly illegal”.
There have been calls for a “full review” of the lighting and power as they found joints in the wiring “everywhere”.
The list of flaws also raised concerns about the structural integrity of the building.
Problems were noted including rusted steel columns, “misaligned and placed unevenly” external cinder blocks, unfilled cinder block cores, and rusted and “incorrectly installed” brackets.
“One of the engineers on the building committee has written a report and he thinks the structure is correct, but I’m not sure,” the chairman of the city’s building committee, Sir Luciano Cragnolini, told the ABC.
“There should be a second opinion. For security reasons, I would like a second opinion.”
There are also concerns about non-compliant fire stairs, non-automatic generators, sub-standard sprinklers, non-automatic fire pumps and a leaking diesel fuel tank.
“There are a lot of bad things. That’s why [we took the occupancy certificate]. It just wasn’t safe,” said Sir Luciano.
In the letter, the building committee asked for further independent inquiries and for another report to be tabled, but Sir Luciano said this had not yet happened.
But despite the whispers spreading around Port Moresby, local media were eerily silent on the building.
Court order stifles defect reports
In early October, the China Railway Construction Engineering Group (PNG) Real Estate Co went to court in Port Moresby to block media coverage of any leaked construction defect documents.
The district court’s interim order issued on October 4 barred all local media from reporting on the Noble Center, including The Post Courier, which the court said had obtained two reports from contractors.
In court documents at the time, the company said it ‘refuted’ the reports and stood next to the building, saying it was ‘very concerned about this report and the authorities are not granting us our right to refuse. “.
According to the claim, any reporting could cause “irreparable damage” to the company’s reputation and business for the Noble Center building.
“Plaintiff spent hundreds of millions … to construct the Noble Center building,” another document read.
“Minor identifiable issues such as fire safety are easily fixable, and these issues are being addressed.”
The case was later dropped from the docket after neither the newspaper nor the company appeared on several court dates.
China Railway Construction Engineering Group (PNG) Real Estate Co declined to answer detailed questions from the ABC, saying the issues covered “ongoing business negotiations with our business partner PNG Ports Corporation”.
“We have yet to come to an agreement on how to proceed with the work of the project and how to continue our cooperations both technically and financially,” a spokesperson said in an email.
The company said it does not believe “media exposure at this stage” would be good for the ongoing discussions and that as a “responsible business partner and outside of business ethics” it would respect the privacy terms of its agreement with PNG Ports.
“The issue between PNG Ports Corporation and our company remains purely a matter of business cooperation at the corporate level and will not impact at a higher level on general terms.”
PNG should have been on “high alert”
With several countries seeking to influence PNG, some experts say there needs to be more control over what kind of investment and aid the country chooses to accept.
“PNG needs to be careful and selective, and not just pick whoever raises their hand first and says, ‘We’ll fund you for this,'” said Paul Barker of PNG’s Institute of National Affairs.
This discretion is especially important when it comes to building infrastructure projects, according to Barker.
“The systems are not functional and the checks that are supposed to occur throughout the process, from the planning stages through to completion, are clearly not enforced,” he said.
Peter Aitsi, chairman of Transparency International PNG, said the involvement of politics in business operations also created a “troublesome area”.
Australia has also increased its involvement in PNG, apparently to counter growing interest from China.
It backed Telstra to buy local telephone company Digicel and gave the PNG government loans for direct budget support for the first time in nearly two decades.
“Donors also need to be more scrupulous,” Barker said.
“They respond in a way that they can be seen to have that level of influence and can outdo themselves, to some extent.
Late last year, a notice appeared in local newspapers advising that the Noble Center had gone into receivership.
The future of the building is uncertain.
It is also unclear what remedial work has been carried out, if any, since the building’s defects were identified.
But each night, the vacant tower still lights up despite concerns over electrical issues and fire safety standards.