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designing hong kong
Conflicts over urban renewal can be avoided

Conflicts over urban renewal in Hong Kong are increasing including now a direct confrontation between two "Government-controlled" entities - the Town Planning Board and the Urban Renewal Authority - over the redevelopment of Staunton Street. However, these conflicts can be avoided.

Secrecy is the problem

We first need to recognize the problem that urban renewal projects are shrouded in secrecy. They are decided on in a backroom within Government, and then sprung upon the public which is given little say over the outcome or possible alternatives.

No one knows why the more than 220 renewal target areas have been picked. No criteria for "dilapidated buildings" or "inefficient land use" have ever been published. No one (except a team inside Government and the Urban Renewal Authority) has detailed information on these target areas.

We learned from a short paragraph hidden in a Government paper to the Legislative Council on the Urban Renewal Strategy Review, that the Chief Executive recently approved 24 new projects to be added to the latest five-year Corporate Plan of the URA. But no details have been provided "because this may lead to speculation".

Surely, speculation is only a problem when not everyone has the same information at the same time?

Surprise – this is an urban renewal project!

What we know so far are the 50 odd projects which were taken over from the Land Development Corporation or commenced by the URA since.

The public only finds out about a renewal project once it is commenced and the development parameters of the project are presented as a fait accompli to the Town Planning Board.

The information then immediately creates a bias as owners offered compensation above the market value of their properties, are pitched against tenants who lose their homes or shops, and concern groups that question the increase in density and destruction of communities.

Is there a need for the URA to intervene?

Conflicts surrounding URA projects can be avoided by first establishing with the community whether there is a need for the URA to intervene with its extensive powers as a measure of last resort.

Communities should be engaged in developing master plans for their district or village. These plans must identify inefficient land use, including dilapidated buildings, lack of open spaces, bad harbourfronts and others.

To prioritize districts for this exercise, the Government should publish - as soon as possible and as part of the ongoing Urban Renewal Strategy Review - its proposed criteria together with a list of "dilapidated buildings" and "inefficient land use areas" it has identified.

Explore all other options first!

Many of the shortcomings in a district or village can be addressed through public works programmes or by stimulating the private sector with zoning amendments, lowering land premiums, facilitating improvement schemes or mortgage guarantees for older buildings and repairs.

Rather than rewarding bad maintenance with high compensation under the URA Ordinance, owners should be forced to fix dilapidated buildings or face the risk of publication of repair orders and ultimately the withdrawal of occupation permits. Any compensation for resumption should be based on the market value of a run-down property.

The URA – a trusted measure of last resort

Once these measures have been exhausted, the public will readily welcome intervention by the URA to resolve problems and ensure higher quality outcomes in their neighbourhood, resume sites where needed, prepare master plans, finance development, or simply to better co-ordinate public works by the myriad of Government departments.
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