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March 21st, 2008:

Sweeping Height Limits Proposed In Mid-Levels

Bid to ease congestion would hit owners of older buildings

Olga Wong, Yvonne Liu and Eva Wu – Updated on Mar 21, 2008 – SCMP

The Town Planning Board has proposed wide-ranging height limits on buildings in Mid-Levels in a move that could ease the area’s severe congestion problems.

But it would deal a blow to owners of older buildings hoping to reap a windfall from redevelopment.

The proposals are aimed at keeping the area’s development density at existing levels, preventing new high-rises from blocking the view of the Hong Kong Island ridgeline and allowing airflows to sweep down from The Peak to Central.

They have emerged from a review believed to be the last to be conducted on prime urban districts.

Similar reviews have already been carried out on North Point, Happy Valley and Ho Man Tin.

Government planners insist the proposed height restrictions would not undermine property owners’ rights.

They say restrictions on plot ratios – the formula that determines development density – and gross floor area could also be introduced if the public endorses the idea.

Jones Lang LaSalle international director Lau Chun-kong said it was good news for residents who enjoyed living in Mid-Levels as it would prevent overdevelopment and congestion and preserve the view.

“But to the owners of old buildings who planned to sell their units to developers, it is bad news,” he said. “The owners will see the redevelopment potential of their properties decline.”

A source in the Planning Department said that under the new rules, all buildings could be redeveloped to their present heights except the landmark 69-storey Tower Three of the luxurious Tregunter development, once the tallest residential building in Asia.

If it was redeveloped, the maximum height would be 35 storeys, although the same plot ratio would be allowed.

The proposals announced yesterday cover 230 hectares in Mid-Levels West.

The area is bound by Bonham Road, Caine Road and Kennedy Road to the north; Bowen Road to the east; Pok Fu Lam Road to the west and the Pok Fu Lam Country Park to the south.

Height restrictions ranging from 115 metres to 320 metres above sea level are to be introduced to the commercial and residential sites in the area. Higher buildings are generally allowed on sites to the north of Robinson Road, which is more densely populated.

An air ventilation assessment was carried out to assess the existing wind flow and the likely impact of the proposed building heights on wind flow for pedestrians.

“The study shows that we must maintain at least three green paths to allow the air to flow to Central,” the source said, referring to areas around the Botanical and Zoological Garden, the University of Hong Kong campus and the Peak Tram.

Congestion has posed a mounting threat to the environment of one of the city’s most expensive residential areas, despite a so-called moratorium imposed in 1972 aimed at keeping development in line with traffic capacity.

Traffic flow in the area is consistently the heaviest in the Transport Department’s annual review of 11 districts and is expected to worsen when 15 new developments are completed.

Savills investment department director Gabriel Cheng Hon-wah said developers would no longer offer aggressive prices to buy flats in old buildings like Merry Terrace.

Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong said the proposals provided guidelines for future urban renewal in the district.

But he said some height restrictions were still too high, allowing buildings of 30 storeys. He also worried that rezoning some government sites for residential use would further increase the development density.

Central and Western District councillor Cheng Lai-king said the changes would help to improve living conditions in the area.

Urban Renewal Strategy Ruining Communities

Updated on Mar 21, 2008 – SCMP

It is widely accepted that the Urban Renewal Authority, through its development projects, has done a lot of damage in Hong Kong, destroying streets which had a unique local character and cohesive community network. Sometimes its policies have led to social unrest.

It demolished “Wedding Card Street” and is now turning its attention on Graham Street, the most historic street market in Hong Kong and a top tourist attraction.

If it had any sense, the URA would not pull down the majority of the 40 buildings in the area to make way for a podium development with four high-rise towers on top.

It should make conservation of the historic street market a starting point by regenerating the existing buildings. Its officials should understand that having four more skyscrapers on that small site is just too much for residents in Central – too much pollution caused by the wall effect, too much traffic, and too little respect for the needs of the community (there is no other market in Central).

Even more problematic is the fact that once the URA declares an area to be a redevelopment site, property owners have no choice but to sell to this single buyer.

The whole process is an infringement of private property rights. Many owners have not been able to buy back properties in the same area with the URA’s compensation.

With such a bad track record, it is clear the role of the URA must be reviewed.

In terms of trying to preserve Hong Kong’s urban fabric, its broad-brush approach of clearing sites for comprehensive development areas is doing more harm than good, increasing development intensity in some already congested areas.

The fundamentals of the urban renewal strategy must be overhauled.

I agree that a district-based approach is needed for urban planning and heritage conservation but the lead should be taken by the government, with the community fully engaged, to impose sensible planning restrictions or to declare historic areas conservation zones (for example, parts of Central), which are protected. Property owners should be encouraged to maintain and renovate their old buildings.

The URA has done a good job in the past in helping owners renovate dilapidated buildings and its future role should focus on this aspect of its work.

Katty Law, Central