Urban renewal needs no grand plans

(Next Magazine, 2015/5/14, A002, Second Opinion, Bill Stacey)

Urban renewal needs no grand plans

Walk from Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay and you can see our town slowly being transformed. Street by street, block by block, old buildings are being refurbished and new, modern, functional buildings are rising on narrow slivers of land. New shops and eateries are gradually replacing old workshops and warehouses. Old favourite cha chaan teng are getting a facelift. Proud new residential apartments replace old walk-up buildings that have long outlived their intended use.

This transformation is happening largely independent of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and in spite of the onerous regulatory challenges for redevelopment. It is eclipsing the large government driven projects that are either long delayed or underwhelming as a draw for people.The old Central Market lies derelict, a home for pigeons on prime land, whilst plans are debated and redevelopment costs skyrocketed.

The old Police Married Quarters (PMQ) on Hollywood Rd seems to attract fewer visitors than the surrounding cafes, local restaurants and antique shops. It seems to attract not the finest of our craftsmanship, but a suite of outlets that have little connection to what people want, therefore little prospect of success at commercial rents.We can only hope that the superbly located Central Police Station, with its impressive heritage buildings, will manage to incorporate shops that people want to buy from, eateries that are representative of our rich cuisines and captures just a little of our heritage that it represents.

Similarly the waterfront from Sai Ying Pun to Wan Chai is gradually opening up to people as the reclamation work is finished. However, this vast expanse of land remains devoid of places to eat, drink and relax with friends. It desperately needs hawkers, a revival of the Dai Pai Dong and modern food outlets.As the Director of Audit has recently pointed out, some of the most underused and poorly managed sites in these urban areas are the Public Markets and cooked food centers run by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

Yet for all these problems with government projects and facilities, the private sector is getting on with delivering what people want. The multi-story restaurant buildings on Stanley Street and Wellington Street in Central have long queues at meal times for elevators. Coffee shops are proliferating with enormous variety. Most antique and gallery businesses have been driven by hip bars from the east end of Hollywood Road into the increasingly interesting lanes that work their way up the slopes from Central and Sheung Wan.

The revival of Lan Kwai Fong is in its early stages, but is driven by one entrepreneur cooperating with neighboring landlords and businesses to attract more people. They run events, competitions and performances to attract people and are improving the ambience of the local environment from an almost seedy past, to a classier alternative.This spontaneous development has been able to happen, precisely because there is no grand plan. The lot sizes in the oldest areas of Hong Kong are much smaller than those in the New Territories and large estates. Small entrepreneurs and some of their larger peers are able to experiment, deliver variety and often retain the character of local areas.

Some demolish old buildings, others restore them. Consolidation of sites might happen if the economics makes sense for the purchaser, but cannot be forced.The policy implications are clear. The built-up parts of our environment are getting better. This transformation is most effective where it is driven by commercial interest in a decentralised process. We don’t need any grand plans. If the government would preserve and extend smaller plot sizes, reform and modernize land transfer procedures, and devolve decision-making to the district level, then we can easily dispense with the URA.

The Executive Council makes far too many decisions that would be better left to entrepreneurs and to be made locally close to the people who have the most at stake. Respect for property rights and extending those rights will make Hong Kong a better place to live.

Bill Stacey