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designing hong kong
Preserve or pay the price

David Chan, an architect and a director of an international property consultancy, explained in the South China Morning Post yesterday, September 17, 2008, that the long term benefits of preserving vibrant older areas outweigh short term losses in land premiums.

The Hong Kong government was taken aback by the passionate protests triggered earlier this year by the demolition of two iconic landmarks - the Central Star Ferry Pier and the adjacent Queen's Pier. While few will argue these structures were "architectural gems", it was their historical value and the regard in which they were held by millions of commuters and tourists that used them that ensured the community loss was deeply felt.

Unfortunately, many iconic buildings have gone the same way and the architectural landscape that gives Hong Kong its flavour is under threat. Urban planners should proceed with caution.

A visit to the markets in Central and Wan Chai reveals nothing but bustle, a pointer to their popularity. Nobody will argue that the eight-storey tenement buildings around such markets are "architectural gems" and if this means they may suffer the same fate as the Central Star Ferry, will planners take into account that their destruction and expected redevelopment may terminally affect the markets?

Consider Soho, which mushroomed from seemingly nowhere on completion of the Mid-Levels escalator in the early 1990s. The lesson is that small tenement buildings may be rejuvenated to fit today's leisure needs and increasing their value for owners, investors and the government alike.

Visitors to Singapore cannot fail to be impressed with the way that many of the city's old shophouses have been transformed into bars, restaurants and boutiques. Many of these structures are older than Hong Kong tenement buildings and were not built to stand the test of time or tropical climates. However, their value now monetarily and socially means their survival is secure and allows Singaporeans and tourists an opportunity to see a living museum of the city.

In London, despite the recent housing slump, nobody can argue that property prices in locations such as Camden Market, Greenwich and Notting Hill are far higher today than they were in the 1970s. Why are these areas considered desirable and attracting buyers willing to pay top dollar for fairly average older housing? Why do tourists visit and what makes them hip and fashionable?

In Hong Kong, there are commendable examples - Lan Kwai Fong, Soho and even the embryonic Tsim Sha Tsui East, where older buildings are being reused, their use changed - and the districts are flourishing. They flourish because of the older buildings not despite them. The government needs to realise that areas of historic and social value should be maintained for future generations. These historical locations should be renovated - not bulldozed for more gleaming towers.

Why is it so different when the government or quasi-governmental agencies are involved? Why is the focus on new, grandiose projects built on podiums and thus allowing no foot traffic? For an example, visit the project dissecting Hanoi Road/Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, or the plans for the Central and Wan Chai markets or the proposed 160-metre "viewing" tower above Victoria Prison.

It is our hope the government will stop looking at short-term revenue from land sales at sites where we have historic buildings and instead impose restrictions on developers' plans to refurbish the sites. I fear another public outcry at the soon to be completed Tsim Sha Tsui Marine Police Station when it is unveiled.

How to address the loss of government revenue from land sales?

Firstly, the loss of revenue from sales of individual plots will be outweighed eventually by increased rates to refurbished areas, which are now more valuable. It will be interesting to see the rateable values of the Soho district 20 years ago compared with today. Again, the principle of short-term gain from a one-off land premium must be balanced by the longer-term value to the community and the effect these areas have on surrounding areas in terms of rents and property prices.

Secondly, there is the matter of the long overdue rezoning of industrial districts and subsequent sales and redevelopment. Areas of Tsuen Wan, Lai Chi Kok and Cheung Sha Wan that are now low-cost commercial buildings can be rezoned to provide the housing or commercial needs of our city. There is no reason to have these ultra high-density districts other than to keep the relative higher value and land premium concentrated in these districts.

The people of Hong Kong have shown they are becoming more socially conscious, and are reassessing what are the true values of our heritage and our collective memories. Simply listing individual buildings with "architectural merits" is myopia at best. It is time to think of communities, districts and our way of life other than simply the physical aspects of bricks, mortar and concrete.

Policies must take into account conservation issues and the preservation of our heritage. By imposing far stricter planning restrictions on renovation of heritage buildings it is true that the market will pay an initial lower premium for these sites in the short term. Longer term, we should see increasing rateable value, rising property values and the subsequent social value in preserving these still vibrant areas.

Surely this outweighs any short-term monetary gain for our already cash-rich government. Are we not being selfish in cashing in now and asking the next generation to pay for it?
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