Reduce, reuse and recycle are words to live by these days, so applying the same tenets to buildings has become a popular notion. But applying a process used for bottles to buildings is a headache in the making. Urban renewal can include everything from land redevelopment, relocations, demolition, beautifying and gentrification — sometimes on a private scale, sometimes public (eminent domain or compulsory purchase). In Hong Kong it’s another knotty aspect of development.
To Revive or Not to Revive
Leading the charge for revitalisation of some of Hong Kong’s aging structures is the Urban Renewal Authority. And it has its work cut out for it. The URA’s mandate includes improving the living environment through a cocktail of social, financial and physical feasibility. “The URA is committed to rejuvenating older urban areas by means of redevelopment, rehabilitation, revitalisation and heritage preservation. Urban renewal is a complex issue as the interests of many different stakeholders are involved,” states a typically anonymous URA spokesperson.
Reuse of existing structures is always a smart option, but circumstances must be nearly perfect. “When looking at a site, it is important to consider the possibilities of two approaches: retaining an existing building and reusing it, or demolishing a building and starting anew,” begins John Puttick, lead architect at Make Architects Beijing. “Often the existing buildings will not be suitable for reuse or do not fulfil the potential of a particular site.” And suitability is an issue in environmentally harsh Hong Kong. “Hong Kong’s building stock is aging rapidly. There are at present about 4,000 buildings aged 50 years or above in Hong Kong,” points out the URA spokesperson. “Rehabilitation is also a core mission of the URA as it could help arrest urban decay and extend the lifespan of buildings,” and the URA launched a programme in 2004 to incentivise residential owners to rehabilitate their buildings.
That’s an inefficient use of land according to David Tse, Chair of External Affairs and Public Concerns Committee for RICS as well as a managing director of LT Properties. “Unless it’s a historical building with social value, why bother to maintain it? A fouror six-storey [building] in Hong Kong is a waste of resources,” that are also potentially dangerous he says. A new high-rise will offer a better financial return and a higher gross floor area for the URA. It bears remembering the URA was previously the Land Development Corporation and it remains a cost-conscious body with a fixed budget. It’s also a nominally official department that is accountable to the government and by extension the public. “I think the URA emphasises redevelopment. All those old buildings are expensive to maintain and the people living there want to move out. Development is more economically viable. Revitalisation, re-habitation and preservation will lose money from a developer’s point of view,” says Tse.
Puttick comes down somewhere in the middle. “Each existing building has its own unique set of characteristics — its historical value, size, density, relationship to the community and so on — so these need to be carefully assessed. In the past, the assumption in Hong Kong has tended to be for complete redevelopment of sites,” he notes. He admits that in a highdensity city that’s often the right approach, “But it is encouraging to see the alternative becoming an option where the existing buildings have positive characteristics.”
One sector on everyone’s mind these days and also one the URA is involved in is the redevelopment of Kowloon East’s industrial buildings. More than a few designers are drooling at the thought of warehouse lofts, but either way it’s a lot of space for, potentially, a lot of homes. The URA has implemented two industrial building pilot projects and, “After trying out the pilot schemes, the URA will review the situation with the Government on the level of its longterm commitment on the redevelopment of industrial blocks. Anyway, the URA will co-ordinate its work with the Government policies,” they said. It’s wait and see for residences.
Time to Refocus
But that’s okay according to Tse. The government relies on the URA and the MTRC for some of its mass-market housing, and to his mind the URA is an ineffective source for private supply. The MTR owns large tracts of land and continues to acquire more. Looking to the URA to help alleviate Hong Kong’s supply woes is misguided. As a private corporation, MTRC can build more and build faster. “A URA project can take five to 10 years. They have to acquire each flat individually in a multi-strata building. This process can take years,” he explains. “They shouldn’t diversity into fields they don’t have expertise in. They’re good with the purchasing stage and I would suggest they focus on this first. Many developers are working on revitalising industrial buildings and not having that much success. Why should the URA do any better?”
In a perfect world fixer-uppers would be easy, but Hong Kong’s dynamics make it hard. Puttick uses Make’s London project, 55 Baker Street (pictured), as an example of how all the pieces should come together. Reduced resources kept it a “clean” project, it minimised inconvenience to residents and sped up the construction process. “The challenge was to make the building feel ‘new’, which we achieved by creating new glazed atria that gives the building a new image and public space, and by entirely renovating the interior spaces.” The URA is currently preparing an application to the Town Planning Board for revitalisation of the old Central Market. Will it be as swish as Baker Street?
“I don’t object to renewals; I encourage them. But they need to be meaningful,” Tse sums up. “There needs to be a special department or more coordination between various departments for this kind of work. The URA alone can’t do it. If the departments don’t come together, [any true renewal project] will be a total failure.”