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Wall Of Resistance

As high-rises spring up around them, some residents are turning into activists to fight what they see as overdevelopment

Joyce Siu – SCMP – Updated on Aug 26, 2008

Candise Chan Yee-wah is an unlikely activist, but the relentless rise of Hong Kong’s concrete blocks turned the mild-mannered housewife from North Point into a campaigner. “You either suffer or speak up,” she says.

Chan’s transformation began when she learned of two proposed projects near her home: a pair of 41-storey residential blocks by Henderson Land Development and an even taller hotel next door by Cheung Kong (Holdings).

A neighbour had spotted application notices put up at the waterfront site and recruited Chan to help poll residents in their housing estate. Concerned that closely built high-rises would block sea breezes and natural light going to buildings in the area, they set up a coalition in April to oppose the developments.

“Most neighbours have day jobs so I help with the research and co-ordination work,” says Chan, a former bank executive.

Developers’ desire to extract a higher premium from flats and offices with views have led to oppressive rows of dense high-rises that turn the streets behind them into ovens.

But as awareness grows about the impact of such projects, several groups such as Chan’s have been formed to fight them.

Financial planner Russell Li Wai-yuen, who lives in a building opposite the North Point developments, says flats in his block have already become stuffier with the squat hotel block taking shape on King Wah Road.

“Conditions will get worse when the hotel opens because of the heat generated by its lights and air conditioners,” he says.

Residents also worry about the congestion that the hotel and residential towers will bring to the small lane. “How can a narrow, one-way road support so many coaches and taxis in the future?” Li says.

Such worries have spurred Li, Chan and other members of the Coalition Against Proposed Development on King Wah Road to spend the past few months collecting signatures, filing complaints and organising forums. “Construction has started on the hotel so we want to take action to oppose the residential high-rises before it’s too late,” says Chan. “This is our home. We have to protect the environment from further deterioration.”

She says the coalition is not opposed to new buildings, but to their height and density. “What we oppose is overdevelopment.

College student Bernard Tang Fai-cheong has experienced the deterioration it can bring. Conditions in his 15-storey building in Tai Kok Tsui have worsened because of the barrier formed by Metro Harbour View, a 10-block complex of 48-storey towers, he says.

Before the high-rises were built in 2003, there were breezes entering my flat. But now I feel like I’m living in an oven; I’m suffering because of the oppressive heat,” Tang says. He has had to keep the air conditioner on most of the day, nearly doubling his power bills.

A Green Sense study last month found, for instance, that the ambient temperature in Tsuen Wan town centre was three to four degrees Celsius higher than at the waterfront – a difference the environmental group attributed to wall developments blocking off breezes. While earlier wall complexes were clustered mostly in redeveloped districts or above MTR stations, they have now spread wider, especially to waterfront areas where flats and hotels with a view can fetch higher prices, Green Sense says.

The developments have turned apathetic professionals into dogged campaigners. The proposal to build a 54-storey apartment block on Seymour Road spurred actuary Yam Chi-fai and his neighbours to form the Mid-Levels West Concern Group. The Robinson Place resident says people are up in arms because they reckon the development will bring more pollution and choke already overloaded roads.

Air quality in our area has been worsening over the past decade; already there are fewer people jogging along Robinson Road because of the poor air,” Yam says. “[Our campaign] is about justice and exploitation. Hong Kong people spend most of their savings on their flats, yet our living environment is worsening. Why do we still have to face a wall and suffer from poor air after a hard day’s work?” he says.

Quarry Bay resident Bicky Li couldn’t agree more. Appalled by a developer’s application to raise the height of residential blocks at a Sai Wan Terrace site from the limit of 91 metres to 170 metres, she, too, rallied fellow residents to resist.

“It would be unfair to the existing residents if the height limit was relaxed,” Li says. “We bought flats here because it is pleasant. But if a taller building is constructed in front of our block, the air flow, sunlight and view corridors will be blocked.”

Chan’s community action has taught her a lot about how the government works.

“I wasn’t a socially conscious person before. I used to think town planning was the job of the government and had nothing to do with me,” she says. “But officials won’t know how their policies are affecting us unless we speak out.

Consulting experts and trawling through libraries and public documents, the activist housewives are teaching themselves how to preserve a liveable city.

“I read through the details, trying to figure out whether there are loopholes in the operation, but it’s a painstaking process. I had no experience at all. There are many technical terms that lay people find difficult to understand,” says Chan, whose handbag is now often stuffed with town planning literature.

In recent months, she has had less time to spend with her family and prepare their meals but says her husband shares her concern and helps look after their 10-year-old son when she’s busy campaigning.

Activists such as Li and Chan criticise the Town Planning Board for not doing enough to safeguard public interest and to ensure that new building projects don’t ignore rules.

“We’re disappointed,” Chan says, accusing the board of failing to ensure that developers submit the ventilation assessments on King Wah Road that they had agreed to in 2006. “Isn’t it the job of the government to scrutinise the developer? The government should serve as the gatekeeper protecting the people’s interests. But why are there so many loopholes?”

Residents should take the initiative to monitor the government, Chan says.

“You can’t always trust what politicians say; you have to learn to verify the information.”

Edward Ng Yan-yung, an architecture professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says restrictions on building heights in relation to the size of nearby streets and distances between structures were removed in the 1990s, resulting in the construction of densely packed, hyper-tall structures.

“Right now I don’t see the regulations managing to strike a balance between building heights and their surrounding environment,” Ng says.

Neighbourhood campaigns have now brought together several groups on Hong Kong Island under the Community Alliance for Urban Planning. Among the more established ones are the Kennedy Road Protection Group, which was formed to fight the proposed Mega Tower in Wan Chai, and the Central and Western Concern Group, which campaigns for balanced, sustainable development. But several are relatively new, including Chan’s coalition and the Mid-Level West and Sai Wan Terrace concern groups.

“We now know we’re not alone,” Chan says. “But we find the bitter reality is the government’s town planning isn’t living up to our hopes for a better living environment.”

Alliance spokeswoman Katty Law Ngar-ning says members realise they face a long-term battle against Hong Kong’s skewed development, but hope the situation will improve as people demand better quality of life.

The Central and Western Concern Group’s success three years ago in blocking the construction of two 30-storey residential blocks at the historic Police Married Quarters site on Hollywood Road shows community action can have an effect, she says.

Law has since met many people who share her concerns. “Most don’t know what avenues are available to express their opinions or are too busy to read tomes of documents,” says Law, another housewife-turned-activist. “But if a few people like us can serve as facilitators to conduct research, summarise and present findings to them, many are eager to get involved.”

They have a simple wish, she says. “We want a better living environment. We want to call a halt to overdevelopment.”

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