Urban planning

Rush for early approval of skyscrapers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am

Developers jumping gun in Mid-Levels in case height restrictions are introduced

Real estate developers are taking advantage of rules in the Building Ordinance and rushing to get approval to build skyscrapers on Mid-Levels sites they do not fully own. A pressure group wants to know why the government is approving the redevelopment plans.

Surveyors said developers were 'buying insurance' in case the Planning Department imposes height restrictions on developments in Mid-Levels by amending the district's outline zoning plan.

Amid public concern about the increasingly massive scale of property developments which disrupt air flows and block out sunshine, the government is studying the possibility of imposing planning controls such as height restrictions.

Surveyors said that once a building plan was approved it would not be affected by subsequent controls to limit development density.

The Planning Department's decision to impose height restrictions in Kowloon Tong last year to protect the low-rise character of the area met strong opposition from property developers and landlords preparing to seek tenders for redevelopment.

Under the Building Ordinance, the Buildings Department only examines a plan's specifications, and particularly its safety aspects, when approving building applications. The identity of the applicants or whether they own the properties are not considered.

A Buildings Department spokeswoman said: 'We approve building plans on the basis of specifications outlined in the Building Ordinance. The identity of applicants is not our concern.'

She also said it sought the opinions of other government departments before giving approval.

In March and April the department approved four redevelopment projects in an area of land bounded by Caine Road, Seymour Road and Peel Street, Central:

A 36-storey residential and commercial tower with clubhouse bordering Seymour Road and Caine Road, opposite Merry Terrace;

A 50-storey residential tower with clubhouse to be built between Caine Road and Castle Road on a plot across the road from the Sun Yat-sen Museum;

A 47-storey residential block with clubhouse at the junction of Seymour Road and Castle Road;

A 30-storey apartment block with clubhouse at Ying Fai Terrace.

Property agents believe Swire Properties has been acquiring properties in these streets for a long time.

A Swire spokeswoman said: 'We will not comment on market speculation. We will continue to find development opportunities.'

Katty Law Ngar-ning, of the Central and Western Concern Group, which pays close attention to planning issues, said: 'Why does the government approve these plans before developers fully own the land?'

She also expressed concern that redevelopment would alter the low-rise character of the district and exacerbate traffic jams on the narrow Mid-Levels roads.

Emperor Investment, the property arm of the Emperor Group, owns 90 per cent of the Ying Fai Terrace site, enough to trigger a compulsory purchase of the rest of the flats. The company would not say when it would call for a compulsory sale of the site, on which a cluster of 7-storey buildings sits.

A property market source said: 'Developers expect the government will impose height restrictions in Mid-Levels. So they are taking action to protect their interests.'

Lau Chun-kong, an international director of Jones Lang LaSalle, said: 'The developers are starting to worry the government will impose height restrictions in Mid-Levels and they need to protect their interests.

'It takes a long period of time, say 10 years, to acquire all property rights on a site for redevelopment. If the government suddenly imposes height restrictions, what could be a 40-storey building might well be reduced to 30 storeys.

'It is very risky for the developer. Securing an approved building plan as soon as possible is like buying insurance.'

Mr Lau does not share the view that developers are taking advantage of a legal loophole, pointing out they are spending money on preparing the building plans.