Value of a view

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 September, 2010, 12:00am

The words 'live and learn' should be emblazoned in metre-high letters in every government office. Alas, one bad decision after another indicates the idiom most officials seem to swear by is 'turn a deaf ear'. That's more than apparent by the Town Planning Board's refusal to listen to reason over the 3.72-hectare harbourfront site of the former North Point Housing Estate. Instead of turning it over to the residents of the area to enjoy, it's adamant that they should share it with a big hotel, more shops and overpriced housing.

Such pig-headedness seems out of place with what authorities have been pledging in recent years. They claim to have understood concerns about a lack of harbour access, reducing the wall effect of tall buildings and providing more places for leisure and relaxation in our pressure-cooker city. All of these can be provided on the site, which has 400 metres of waterfront and ready access to public transport. Think trees and grass, outdoor cafes, entertainment venues and sporting facilities, all with harbour views and breezes.

Board members have other ideas. They, and the Housing Authority, which managed the North Point estate until it was torn down in 2002 because the 47-year-old buildings were considered too old to properly maintain, have referred to the land as 'valuable', 'important' and 'prime'. Those aren't terms we associate with parkland; they're what we're used to hearing from our government, which derives most of its income from selling public land to developers. There's no need to guess what's driving resolve to bulldoze community wishes.

Exactly how much the land would fetch if sold isn't clear. It's been variously referred to as the most expensive harbourfront site in either Eastern District or all of Hong Kong Island. For the people of North Point, who have only pocket-sized concrete parks to escape from the noise and soot-riddled canyon of buildings known as King's Road, whether it would fetch HK$100 billion or HK$1 at auction is irrelevant. They know that whatever ends up in developers' hands will be gone forever from public use.

The board argues otherwise. While seeking a single developer, it insists on a 20-metre-wide promenade and more than 40 per cent of the space be held over for public use. Buildings can't be higher than 80 metres and the plot ratio is 5.26. The developer, not the government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department, will be required to manage the public areas.

Unsurprisingly, objections abound. Site restrictions mean that whatever gets built will carry a luxury price tag. North Point is an old part of Hong Kong and property prices and rents are already excessive for what's on offer. Turfing out people on social security so that the wealthy can move in sends the worst of signals.

Even the Real Estate Developers Association objects. One of its town planning consultants, Ian Brownlee, told me that the worth of the site to the community was about twice that of its market value. This was because of the desperate lack of open space in the area. He said that, instead of being sold as a single lot, it should be broken up into sites for community open space and development.

When I moved to North Point 18 years ago, I was struck by how cramped it is on weekends. A friend who lived nearby told me how, in the mid-1960s, he used to swim from a beach near what is now the ferry pier. The green murkiness of the harbour and the concrete struts of the Eastern Corridor now make that impossible. At dawn or dusk, though, on a bench and looking across to Kowloon, with tranquility all around and a fresh breeze, it's possible to imagine what could be - with a little imagination.

Town planners should have a feel for such matters. They're supposed to have moved on from the thinking of the 1970s, when the dream was to cover every square centimetre of land with buildings. It's clear that Hong Kong's government planners are still locked in the past. As the case of the former North Point estate, the old Kai Tak airport site and the west wing of the Central Government Offices show, to them, people and their needs count for less than keeping government coffers bulging.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post