Hong Kong is finally getting in on the regeneration game. At least that’s what it seems like. Though the Urban Renewal Authority has been taken to task, repeatedly, for not doing enough to preserve old Hong Kong, it’s trying its best with limited resources — like buildings. On the other hand, there are private, boutique developers out there trying their part to regenerate instead of tear down. Of course when the “shining” example is the retail wonderland that is 1881 Heritage and Central Market sits (largely) empty it’s easy to get discouraged. “Due to the fact that the value of land in Hong Kong is always so high, speedy urbanisation and city development has led to many invaluable historical properties being torn down,” argues Mathew Lui, Partner at Hirsch Bedner Associates in Hong Kong. “This has a direct link to the Hong Kong government.” Is there hope for the city’s remaining heritage?
“The Urban Renewal Authority Ordinance requires the URA to follow the guidelines in the Government’s Urban Renewal Strategy and prepare and obtain the approval of Financial Secretary each year for both a 5-year Corporate Plan and annual Business Plan laying out the direction and programme of the URA’s activities,” explained a spokesperson for the URA of the process of redeveloping urban structures in Hong Kong. In other words, one of the biggest hurdles the URA has to clear is paperwork.
But as Lui sees it, the government has, for years, been attempting to implement a regeneration programme without a long-term vision. “They didn’t have a well-measured policy to balance the development and conservation for irreplaceable buildings,” like the old Hong Kong post office, demolished in 1977. “Citizens were concerned that there was a social need to review the traditional urban redevelopment sites before they were demolished and lost forever,” says Lui. He points to Singapore’s colonial post office and Fullerton Hotel both getting a new lease on life. Compare that to Queen’s Pier. “It was converted into a landfill unreasonably, which has raised public awareness not only among conservationists but also with locals and ecologists. No one could see how such regeneration or renewal actions [would] preserve the local culture or improve quality of living.”
As a firm HBA focuses on hospitality design, but it’s been at the forefront of redevelopment in Asia for years. Recent projects have included modest renovation of Singapore’s Orchard Road Marriott Hotel, the Royal Plaza in Mong Kok and the historic Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Foresight aside, Hong Kong isn’t alone in its paperwork issue. Almost every developer working on regenerations in London, arguably the world’s current regeneration leader, will bellyache about the sheer length of time it takes to get approvals for development despite the desperate need for housing. And those are just some of what makes redevelopment here so complex. “There are so many invaluable historical properties in both Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, and our city represents an integration of markets: political authority and community,” states Lui. For healthy, positive development you need maintenance, communication and balance
Nonetheless, a URA project that is actually coming to fruition is The Nova (www.thenova.hk) in Sai Ying Pun, at 88 Third Street to be exact. In line with those regulations and the required approvals, the URA embarked on the project in December 2005. Sitting not too far from higher profile developments by Wheelock and Henderson, The Nova has the same neighbourhood cool cachet, but was designed with the needs of the community in mind — both physically and on the small- to medium-sized flat front — according to the URA. Developed along with China Overseas (a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corporation) The Nova should be ready next year.
“Before redevelopment, the site was occupied by about 20 buildings mostly built in [the] 1950s, which were in very poor condition and deemed to be beyond economic repair,” explains the spokesperson about what made the site ripe for redevelopment. “Some of them did not even have a toilet and basic sewage facilities. The site is now redeveloped into a residential block with the provision of public open space.” <
Ultimately The Nova will supply 255 flats on 35 storeys ranging in size from 365 to 855 saleable square feet, with an added 14,000 square feet of open public space around the property. The Nova will features one- to three-bedroom apartments, and the building itself will have all the amenities expected of developments like it. Each unit incorporates open space on a balcony; a rooftop clubhouse features a swimming pool, garden, gym, sauna, lounge, banquet facilities and children’s in- and outdoor play areas. As of May, prices at The Nova ranged up to $30,000 per saleable square foot on high floors, which is a reminder that the URA is not necessarily in the public housing game. “I don’t think the URA has been effective, as they have not done enough work to preserve heritage,” laments Lui. “Their regeneration sector is too focused on the property investment side.”
So are regenerations the wave of the future? Are they one part in the solution to Hong Kong’s housing and office needs? Yes and no according to Lui. “Currently, there aren’t many valuable heritage sites that can be preserved in Hong Kong, and there are also too many on-going conflicts between the government and the citizens on the topic of preservation,” he theorises. “Even though the government is trying its best to ameliorate the physical environment, the public seems to be more concerned with the social and economic environment.” Those are fair concerns, but they are intertwined with urban renewal. Government, architecture, conservation and several other sectors need to form one body to set goals. Lui points to the old central police station — which involved local and overseas professionals working within specific parameters — as an impressive example of how renewal can work. Too bad there are no flats.