A sleepy area caught between slow gentrification and a stairway to hell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Alan Lo Yeung-kit is an unlikely critic of urban renewal. Three of his successful restaurants - Classified, Press Room and The Pawn - are located in Urban Renewal Authority projects in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai.

Critics have accused his businesses of taking part in the kind of URA-style renewal that is destroying the character of Hong Kong's old neighbourhoods. But Lo is no fan of bulldozer redevelopment. 'Our whole approach to urban renewal needs to be rethought,' he said.

Lo said he has come up with an alternative model for urban renewal, one that is both profitable and preservation-based. Last year, he and partner Darrin Woo founded a new design and development firm, Blake's, that was inspired by the old neighbourhood around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. The firm's first project took a mid-century tong lau at 226 Hollywood Road and converted it into four luxury apartments. The units sold out soon after they went on sale in November, fetching more than HK$25 million apiece.

'It's about getting out of the bog-standard big-developer approach and making something that fits the neighbourhood,' Lo said. 'The vision is to rethink an old, slightly sleepy neighbourhood with respect for what has been in the district for a long time, and without having to knock things down.'

With the Central and Western District Council considering installing a new escalator on Pound Lane, the Blake Garden area - now a web of quiet streets and low-rise buildings that are becoming increasingly fashionable with creative types, professionals and expats - could well be on its way to becoming Hong Kong's next trendy neighbourhood. Small-scale projects like Blake's have been slowly gentrifying the area, but big developers have also been sniffing around, hoping to buy up blocks of old tenements for redevelopment.

The question now is which model of renewal it will take: gradual gentrification or wholesale redevelopment? It is a tough choice, said Katty Law Ngar-ning, a neighbourhood activist who grew up a five-minute walk from Blake Garden.

She sees the area caught between two undesirable fates. One, led by projects like 226 Hollywood Road, would keep the neighbourhood's character intact but at unaffordable prices. The other - sparked by escalator-driven redevelopment - would obliterate its low-rise scale and sense of community.

'All we can hope is the change will be gradual,' she said.

The changes have multiplied rapidly: in the past two years, more than 20 new design workshops, architecture studios, boutiques and cafes have opened in the area, replacing the printers, coffin makers and metalworkers that have long dominated the neighbourhood.

Law said the changes had, so far, kept in tune with the neighbourhood's spirit. 'The people who have moved into this area really treasure the things that make it special, like the tong lau and the very close-knit community,' she said. 'They just want to do their own thing quietly.'

One of the newcomers is Mei Mak, who opened a small cafe, Homei, on Tai Ping Shan Street last year.

'I didn't want to have such a heavy burden from rent that I would have to work for the landlord's sake,' she said. 'The feeling here is so good. Not too many people pass by. If you go to Causeway Bay, Central or SoHo, it's so packed you don't get to talk to people as much.'

Many of the area's business owners say that an escalator or high-rise development would ruin the atmosphere that attracted them in the first place. 'You can breathe here,' said Sin Sin, who opened an art gallery and lifestyle store on Sai Street in 2005, after being priced out of On Lan Street in Central. 'This is the best area for creativity because people here are much more laid back, much more mellow than anywhere else.'

The fate of nearby SoHo, where ever-rising rents have led to a revolving-door landscape of chain restaurants and struggling small businesses, is a cautionary tale around these parts. If an escalator were built through the neighbourhood, Sin said, the Blake Garden area could follow a similar path. 'If it gets to be like that, that's the time I move out.'

Urban planning critic John Batten, who has lived in the neighbourhood for nearly 20 years, is more blunt. 'The escalator would be the death of the area,' he said.

Noise levels would increase, prices would go up and developers would be keen to exploit the area's 30-storey height limits. 'You have to wonder who is pushing this idea behind the scenes,' he said.

The escalator's chief proponent has been the local branch of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, whose community relations officer, Kathy Siu Ka-yi, can be seen on dozens of posters and banners supporting the project.

'There is a serious problem in transport in the Mid-Levels because there are only two escalators,' Siu said. 'It is very hard for the elderly to walk around the district because there are so many ladder streets.'

When asked whether the escalator would encourage the neighbourhood's redevelopment, Siu said that it would be difficult to control the free market. 'Maybe the change will help people improve their living situation,' she said.

'I don't particularly see the point of a new escalator,' Lo said. 'It's good in terms of guiding traffic to this part of town but the worry is that, for those of us who enjoy and appreciate that village quality of Sheung Wan, this additional traffic would inevitably turn it into a SoHo or Lan Kwai Fong type of district.'

He pointed to the Star Street area of Wan Chai as a similarly quiet, inaccessible area that had recently been transformed by big developers and high-rise development. 'Wan Chai is a classic example of what not to do,' he said. 'Star Street has been gentrified and developed to the point that it now feels sterile.'

The only way to prevent that from happening around Blake Garden, said Batten, is to down-zone the area to permit only low-rise development. But the chances of this happening would be slim. 'If you live on The Peak or in Kowloon Tong, you get height restrictions. But not here,' he said.