Correct approach to urban renewal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am

The Urban Renewal Authority has come in for some criticism for plans to redevelop parts of Hong Kong that residents do not want to relinquish for historical or sentimental reasons. But its most ambitious project yet - tearing down 5.3 hectares of a shabby district of Kwun Tong - would seem to be meeting little resistance.

Part of the reason for this is that the sort of heritage concerns which have arisen elsewhere are not present in the case of Kwun Tong. But the process adopted by the authority has also got the project off to a good start. There are lessons here the government could learn from as it considers the wider development of our city.

In Kwun Tong, from the rubble of the 24 housing blocks, industrial buildings, shops and a bus station will rise an up-scale development of apartments centred on a 70-storey building and glass-domed government complex. At least 30 per cent will be devoted to green space; there will be none of the 'curtain effect' blocking air flow that other high-rise developments elsewhere in the city have been criticised for creating.

The project will cost HK$30 billion, with almost half going towards compensating residents. Officials, with justification, contend that it will revitalise a part of Hong Kong to which few people from outside Kwun Tong venture.

Authority projects differ in their circumstances and processes from the big government development plans that have caused controversy recently, such as those concerning the Star Ferry and Queen's piers, the new administrative complex at Tamar, and the West Kowloon arts hub. But it is still worth noting that the authority's plans for Kwung Tong involve a real sense of feeling the pulse of the community. Indeed, it has even decided to lower the plot ratio in response to public demands, a move that will make it harder to ensure the development is financially sustainable.

Three architectural firms were approached for ideas and the plan unveiled yesterday combined elements of each. After town planning officials look the project over, a nine-month public consultation period will begin. Objections and suggestions will be considered, compensation paid and work is expected to start in 2010.

Granted, that the scheme has been on drawing boards since 1998 means a careful planning process has been possible. Announced by the Land Development Corporation, it was passed to the authority in 2001 when the corporation was dissolved. While so protracted a scheme is not desirable from the perspective of developers, it is certainly so from the point of view of citizens. More broadly, Hong Kong should have a long-term development strategy that is well thought out and given due consideration by all stake-holders.

The Kwun Tong proposal is being handled sensibly. The plan has been released and is open for scrutiny and soon a reasonable amount of time will be permitted for residents to have their say.

It is important that the public makes the best use possible of the consultation process. If there are objections to the plans, this is the time to air them. The authority should then make sure that it listens to the community's response and adjusts the proposals where necessary. Suggestions should be handled in an open manner. This is the way to put in place a development of which we can be proud.