Construction nightmare in Mid-Levels

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am

Roger Ho Yao-sang paces back and forth in his dining room. He packs a sandwich, a bottle of hot water and some medicine in a shopping bag as if preparing for a major hike.

Ho is about to go for his daily walk, a ritual since being discharged from hospital after an operation nearly two months ago. But although he lives in one of the most coveted areas of Hong Kong - Mid-Levels - he refuses to take that walk along his own Caine Road.

He wants to get away from the dust and noise, the traffic jams caused by trucks loading and unloading, the footpaths narrowed by construction material that take up half the walkway.

There is a building boom in Mid-Levels. And for the first time in 30 years, Ho feels deprived of a liveable environment.

'It is impossible to take a proper rest at home,' says Ho, a 40-something author of books on heritage conservation. 'It is too noisy here. Apart from the noise, the whole building is shaken by piling work. The park is a bit further away from the construction work. It is the only place where I can have peace.

'Whenever I am at home I feel like I am experiencing a minor earthquake.'

Developers including Henderson Land, Swire Properties and Cheung Kong have eight projects in the works in the Caine Road, Seymour Road and Conduit Road neighbourhoods.

Prices of new projects continue to soar. Phoenix Property Investors, an investment fund, sold most of the flats at its Gramercy on Caine Road at an average of HK$19,000 per square feet in November. A month later, Swire Properties' Azura project fetched HK$21,500 to HK$24,700.

The construction won't end after these eight projects are finished. Developers are busy snapping up old buildings for at least six redevelopment projects. The Urban Renewal Authority is buying properties in Graham Street and Staunton Street. Henderson Land has an acquisition project in Robinson Road.

Never mind that the environment is deteriorating. Prices are still rising.

'Mid-Levels West is close to Central. Residents of Caine Road can go to Central on foot. It also has many elite schools. Therefore the neighbourhood is attractive for buyers,' says Alnwick Chan Chi-hing, executive director at real estate firm Knight Frank.

While Ho chooses to escape to a nearby park, Katty Law Ngar-ning's solution is to keep the window closed.

'The living environment is worsening with so many developments and new ones under construction,' Law says.

A long-time resident of Mid-Levels, Law formed the Central and Western Concern Group after watching the environment of the neighbourhood deteriorate.

'I considered leaving here but I would miss the neighbourhood if I left,' she says. 'My children also do not want to leave this place.'

She believes redevelopment will still be going strong years from now, especially with a new law affecting buildings that are at least 50 years old. Developers can force the sale of remaining flats in a building once they have acquired 80 per cent of the property interests in it, down from the previous 90 per cent threshold.

'Demolition and construction will be never-ending. More old buildings will give way to high-rises and the road will be more congested.'

Although the Town Planning Board imposed height restrictions in Mid-Levels in early 2008 to make redevelopment projects less lucrative, in 2007 developers rushed to get approval to build skyscrapers on Mid-Levels sites they did not fully own - partly spurring today's boom.

Swire Properties is building the 50-storey Azura in Seymour Road and two projects in Caine Road. Henderson Land is redeveloping Merry Terrace in Seymour Road. At 38 Caine Road, the Gramercy is being turned into ever-pricier flats. Down the road is another redevelopment combining the site of the former Grand Court and Kension Mansion.

Dr Hung Wing-tat, a transport expert at Polytechnic University, says the Transport Department should conduct a comprehensive study on traffic in Mid-Levels.

'Although developers have to conduct a traffic impact assessment, they are only responsible for providing an assessment of their own project. It is important to have a study on the cumulative impact of all the projects. But no one is doing it now.'

Rebecca Ng, who lives in Conduit Road, says: 'At least the government should make sure the pavement is not occupied by construction materials. The situation is dangerous. We are forced to compete with vehicles for space.'

Skyscraper alley

The number of current big projects by major developers in the Caine Road, Seymour Road and Conduit Road areas: 8


The number of storeys for Swire Properties' Azura complex in Seymour Road: 50

Rule change

Many developers gained approval to build skyscrapers before height restrictions came into force in: 2008