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MegaTower, Bad Planning, and Great Favours 

The debate over the Mega Tower will soon flare up again when the notices for road widening in Wanchai and Kennedy Road are published in the Government Gazette. These works are the ugliest examples of traffic separation whereby pedestrians are forced off the ground and into elevated walkways and passages through private developments. They are out of character with the neighbourhood and designed to improve vehicular capacity ahead of Mr. Gordon Wu's Mega Hotel.

Mr. Wu has made great contributions to the development of Hong Kong over many years. He also has procured ownership rights with hard earned cash over many small properties between Kennedy Road and Queen's Road. When he bought them, he did so with an expectation that the Government land he surrounded became unalienable and his to obtain at little cost. He carefully amalgamated all the various sites and because the entire site now abuts Queen's Road East he is no longer restricted by the development control along Kennedy Road. It is a very smart and legitimate plan exploiting the simplistic planning laws in our city. Fortunately, Government departments had till last year objected to this monster development using their discretionary powers and every technical excuse. 

In the meantime, Mr. Gordon Wu has done the Government a favour and did what no one else could achieve: he helped the Government secure the Hong Kong Zhuhai Macau Bridge. Let's ignore here that it is a cheap road-only bridge without a sustainable rail link. He did so without a contract approved by the Legislative Council (surely a fee of 1% over the contract sum would have been reasonable?) and there is no guarantee that it can be decided that Mr. Wu's company, Hopewell Holdings, wins the public tender for the bridge.  

With this in mind it comes as no surprise that Government departments are suddenly rethinking their rationale in an all out effort to bestow development rights on a honorable citizen by facilitating his monster project. For some this is a demonstration of an expedient and flexible Government. For others this demonstrates that urban planning in Hong Kong is badly managed and open to the collusion of interests between developers and Government rather than concerns over sustainability and quality of living. 

MegaTower case raises basic issues about urban planning in Hong Kong

The following article, which appeared first in the Property Post of the South China Morning Post, 11 June 2008, is written by Nicholas Brooke, the chairman of Planning Alliance, an association formed at the end of last year comprising a group of professionals, the majority of whom are actively involved in planning issues in Hong Kong. He also runs his company, Professional Property Services Group.

The role of the Town Planning Board, according to the Town Planning Ordinance, is "to promote the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the community by making provision for the systematic preparation and approval of plans for the layout of areas of Hong Kong as well as for the buildings suitable for erection therein, and for the preparation and approval of plans for areas within which permission is required for development".

The question now being asked is whether the ordinance is capable of delivering this objective. If my understanding of the sequence of events linked to the proposed MegaTower Hotel on Kennedy Road is correct, the answer is "no".

In April 1985, the planning board accepted a development plan for a hotel with a gross floor area of 1,142,650 square feet on a 76,175 sq ft site on Kennedy Road which would lie alongside a public park of 63,290 sq ft. In June of the same year, the area was zoned OU(CRA), or comprehensive redevelopment area.

This zoning "is intended primarily to encourage the redevelopment of this area into commercial uses with the provision of public open space and other supporting facilities.

"The zoning is to facilitate appropriate planning control over the development mix, scale, design and layout of development, taking account of various environmental, traffic, infrastructure and other constraints," according to the notes attached to the outline zoning plan.

Because of the road layout and the sloping nature of the terrain, the development of the CRA not only affects its neighbours on Kennedy Road itself but also on Queen’s Road East and Wan Chai District, as the site is immediately adjacent to Hopewell Centre.

In January 1994, the planning board approved an application made under Section 16 of the planning ordinance to develop a 93-storey hotel (MegaTower Hotel) with 1.77 million sq ft of gross floor area on a 111,030 sq ft site flanked by a public park of only 21,850 sq ft. In addition to more than 2,000 hotels rooms, the development provided 440,000 sq ft of retail space and 270 car parks. The plot ratio was 15.91.

Following this Section 16 approval, the developer applied for general building plan approval, which it received in May 1994. Part of the approved development was to take place on government land the developer needed to acquire, but no acquisition took place.

In November 2003, however, the developer made a presentation to the Wan Chai District Council and it was noted in the minutes that the 1994 Section 16 approval had lapsed.

In April 2004, a fresh application under Section 16 was submitted to the planning board for a hotel comprising two blocks of 60 storeys each, but this was rejected on grounds the scale of the development was not compatible with the medium-density environment on Kennedy Road and concerns regarding the increased volume of traffic it would generate on Kennedy Road and Queens Road East.

The developer then submitted a Section 17 review application to the board in February 2005 and proposed that the plot ratio should be reduced to 14.5 and both blocks should be 58 storeys in height.

The board again rejected this proposal, saying the scale of development was excessive, there would be significant visual impact on the neighbourhood, there would be adverse traffic impact on Kennedy Road, and that the development would require excessive tree felling.

In the meantime, despite the controversial nature of the development, in June 2004, a member of the Planning Department agreed to a minor amendment to the 1994 scheme on the basis that the approval of the May 1994 plan constituted a commencement of development and subsequently the building plan was also amended to reflect the Section 16 amendment.

At the same time, the planning board rezoned several smaller sites along Queen's Road East as open space, as it was considered that this part of Wan Chai was becoming too densely developed.

In June 2005, the developer appealed the rejection of the Section 17 review but withdrew this appeal recently. It also announced an intention to proceed with the still extant 1994 approved scheme and to enter into negotiations to acquire the government-owned land required for its construction.

So much therefore for the history of the case, but it does raise several fundamental questions about the operation of our planning system in Hong Kong. Specifically, one has to ask why officials within both the Planning and Buildings departments permit plans to be amended so as to reactivate earlier approvals.

What has changed since the board refused development in April 2004 on the grounds of excessive scale and traffic concerns?

Nothing, except that the sites zoned as open space and which made up part of the 1994 scheme have now been developed (despite still being zoned as open space), and traffic along both Kennedy Road and Queen's Road East has continued to worsen since 2004.

Other questions that beg for answers are: why is the government planning to sell to a private developer the government-owned land that is required to undertake this controversial scheme, when such scheme has failed to attract public support and contravenes the government's own guidelines? And what attention has been given to the problems of increased traffic?

No independent traffic assessment has been undertaken and this is the minimum that should be done before gazetting the proposed flyover/tunnel for vehicle access to and from Kennedy Road by MegaTower visitors or any sale of government land that would enable the hotel project to go forward.

Furthermore, the road works required to enable access to and from the development will be extremely disruptive.

The Wan Chai District Council has also urged government to reassess the effect of traffic generated by the MegaTower Hotel on the area. It adopted a motion on May 20 opposing planned Transport Department road works designed to relieve traffic pressures after completion of the hotel until it had received details of the work and its traffic concerns had been allayed.

The further loss of open space in the area will affect air quality and visual appeal and a preferable alternative to selling to a private developer to the detriment of the local community would be for the government to retain the site's existing state - undeveloped and zoned as a green belt.

The government claims that, because of the 1994 Section 16 approval, the Lands Department is now under an obligation to exchange land with the developer to facilitate the development of the project.

The basis for this claim is not clear. All Section 16 decisions include a section stating: "This approval by the board under Section 16 of Town Planning Ordinance should not be taken to indicate that any other government approval which may be needed in connection with the development will be given."

My understanding based on other cases with which I have been involved is that the planning board is an independent statutory body and cannot bind government departments.

Clearly, the history of the MegaTower project raises concern that the systems for approving development projects in Hong Kong do not function as intended.

How can schemes approved some 14 years ago be developed despite significant changes in the neighbourhood in the interim?

Why does the government claim that it is "obliged" to sell land to a developer in the face of public opposition? Where is the demonstration of the government's commitment not just to engage the community but, more particularly, to listen? Are there no inherent dangers in a system that allows lapsed plans suddenly to become reactivated? If the open space has now been developed, albeit still zoned as open space, does this not change the parameters to such an extent that the original zoning objectives can no longer be fulfilled?
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