Turn The Spotlight On Kennedy TownKennedy Town has been hopping for some time now. As the opening of the new MTR stations gets closer and closer, the one time end of the (tram) line has made its way to headlines again. Whether the new buzz translates into another price jump is unclear for now, but one thing is certain: KT is cool. And new residences are starting to reflect that.

Breaking Away

Massive towers like The Merton and Cadogan have been around for some time, but like its nearest cousins in Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan, Kennedy Town is getting funky. The area’s first design-focused serviced apartment (Skyla) opened around a year ago and now comes Habitat Property’s unnamed Tung Fat Building on the New Praya. The 1960s waterfront tong lau has been in the works since 2003 and after a gruelling decade of acquiring each unit and dealing with a rigid Buildings Department it’s ready for residents.

“Habitat is really a real estate agency — we do sales, leasing, a lot of corporate relocations and property management and this is our first step into property development,” explains founder and director Victoria Allan. The one time director of commercial leasing at Colliers Jardine (now Colliers International) started Habitat in 2001 catering to high-end sales and rentals, but was convinced there was a wider market in Hong Kong for creative living. “People are interested in more interesting space, they’re becoming more aware of international architects and design, and I think it’s important that there’s a variety of things in Hong Kong to live in. I’d like to provide something other than just a modern high rise.”

The eight suites in the Tung Fat Building are dotted with little details that appeal to residents that are also seasoned travellers and design savvy. Appliances are tucked behind fully retractable doors for a sleek finish that hides toaster crumbs, a washer-dryer cubby has storage and prep space, sliding doors maximise space wherever possible, and standard appliances include a dishwasher and wine fridge. Designed by Melbourne-based architects KPDO (which opened a Hong Kong office a couple of years ago) the building has a new elevator while maintaining the tong lau’s original stairwells. The units (originally 16) have been opened up and natural light dominates. The window lines have been dropped and Allan and KPDO opted not to restore the original balconies. Nonetheless, the sea is still visible from any seat in the living room. “We were thinking about it because we thought it would be nice to have outside space. So what we did was put in really big sliding windows. All the windows open in the living room so you still get that indoor/outdoor feeling. We just thought people would prefer to have the space,” says Allan.

Tough Market

The apartments (960 to 1,320 square feet) are available furnished in the design of the show flat, or unfurnished. At price points pushing the limits for Kennedy Town — $48,000 to $110,000 per month — Allan wanted to give tenants a choice. “Most of the furniture is by Carl Hansen as we felt it suited the style of the apartment. But if people want the furniture we can provide it for them,” she notes.

But those rates could be the norm for properties like Tung Fat sooner rather than later. The Merton, Cadogan and even The Belchers have their share of pricey units. Despite the volatile nature of the financial sector, Allan is confident in the property’s appeal. “We do a lot of leasing, 50 percent of our business is leasing to expats. We’ve definitely seen … a significant fall in rents in the last six months. But that’s been at the high end of the market, above $100,000,” she theorises. “The big cutback — across the board — is expats coming in with two kids and big housing allowances. Those days are gone.” Fat, banking sector housing allowances are increasingly being substituted for local packages, resulting in a downward shift in rents.

Either way, staff that are coming in or relocating from other parts of the city are ready for something different. “People want to live in a neighbourhood,” states Allan. Potential tenants that once lived in London and New York more and more often want that same street level life with a local flavour. Tung Fat sits about four minutes from a new Kennedy Town MTR entrance, and New Praya is dotted with chic eateries (Kinsale, Bistronomique, Chino on its ground floor), a local pub (Bulldogs) and is just a few minutes from the emerging Davis Street night spot.

Ultimately the selling point is the flats. Habitat business development manager Mark Cumming argues, “It’s about not being lazy. Whether it’s a piece of furniture, making something to eat or a building, you have a series of components you can use and put together in different ways. Taking the easy route delivers something you’ve had before. It’s about pushing that bit harder and when the authorities, architects, investors, accountants or whoever say, ‘Why don’t we just do this easy thing?’ and saying ‘No. It can be better.’ I think that’s when you start to open that gap between what you see around you in Hong Kong and what we want to deliver.”

After all the turmoil and bureaucratic wrangling, Allan and Cumming agree that regardless of the wrangling they will develop again in the future. “Personally I’ve had a lifetime of engaging in creativity … that [is] fleeting. There’s something rewarding about doing something that is permanent, visible, tangible and has a long-term benefit,” finishes Cumming. “That building could have disappeared five or ten years ago so easily, and to me it’s the fabric of Kennedy Town.”