North Point initiative should be first of many
The land surrounding the North Point ferry terminals where the former North Point estate once stood is potentially worth tens of billions of dollars to the government's coffers. That assumes no height restrictions, limited open space and a plot ratio comparable with the local norm.
In his October policy address, however, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised a planning review to lower the density of development, saying that the inevitable loss in public revenue from land sales was worth it if it created a better living environment.
This was a response to increasing public concern over the adverse effects of high-density development that blocked air flow by creating a 'wall effect' that blocked breezes, raised urban temperatures and aggravated pollution, and reduced the amount of sunshine.
The redevelopment of the old North Point estate - one of the most valuable residential sites in Hong Kong - presents the government with the first big test of a more environmentally sensitive approach.
Planning Department proposals to be considered by the Town Planning Board represent a radical response. The department has not stopped at a 100-metre height restriction proposed last year right across North Point, but slashed it to 80 metres. Plot ratios proposed for two developments flanking a transport terminal - a hotel and a commercial-residential centre - are 4.12 and 3.05 respectively, compared with an average of 6 to 8 in nearby residential developments. The ratios govern the amount of floor space developers can build on a site; a lower figure means less floor space. As well as the height restriction, development of the commercial-residential complex will be stepped downwards towards the waterfront.
The height restriction alone, however, is not enough to prevent the construction of wall-like buildings, or the encroachment of large podiums. To allow space for wind circulation and visual access to the waterfront, the plan limits maximum site coverage to 65 per cent and provides 10-metre-wide open spaces either side of the terminal and a 10 to 20-metre-wide promenade along the shoreline. This will also address a shortfall of public open space in North Point under the planning standards and guidelines.
The proposal has been well received in some quarters, including environmental activists, as an attempt to strike a sensible balance between two imperatives - continued development and making Hong Kong a more attractive place to live and work. It deserves to be. By one estimate, the site's development parameters will cost the public coffers about HK$19 billion. That is certainly a big sum. Right now, Hong Kong can well afford that, with the accumulation of enough fiscal reserves to cover government spending for more than 18 months. It is arguable that there will be no better time to find the right balance between development and conservation and the quality of life by tackling an issue that has been much talked about.
Hopefully, the government's bold planning initiative will be the first of many in the search for the right balance. In fact, it would be wrong just to focus on the monetary losses of reduced development density. What the community loses in land revenue will be compensated for by environmental gains through less pollution, reduced health risks and higher quality of life.
Even if the monetary value of such gains does not eclipse that of the forgone revenue, there is no point sitting on a mountain of cash if the city we call home becomes increasingly uninhabitable due to overdevelopment.