The heights of arrogance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am

The News

In July, the Real Estate Developers' Association (Reda) of Hong Kong applied for a judicial review of building height limits set by the Town Planning Board (TPB).

Reda claims that developers were not given a fair hearing during the planning process. They want the TPB to revise the Outline Zoning Plans (OZPs) - area-specific frameworks allowing certain land uses - and specifically the restrictions on building heights.

The environmental group Green Sense argues that height restrictions are necessary, and criticises developers for not accepting defeat on this issue. They say that this reflects the reality of 'developer hegemony' - rule by powerful developers - in Hong Kong.

Green Sense complains that before height restrictions were legislated, developers built many abnormally tall buildings. These include two ifc and The Masterpiece. Therefore, there are huge variations in building heights across Hong Kong. This mars the Victoria Harbour skyline that many people would enjoy if these 'toothpick' buildings were not erected.

Green Sense also points out that Causeway Bay's air pollution is always very high. Vehicle exhaust fumes are trapped between rows of tall, closely packed buildings. This is the 'urban canyon' effect. Research has also shown that temperatures in central Causeway Bay are as much as three degrees Celsius higher than those on the waterfront. This shows the 'heat island' effect.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, head of Green Sense, said the height controls were 'crucial' because they help to prevent wall-like effects that block air ventilation.

The Issues

The most critical debate surrounding this legal battle is whether we should prioritise development over the environment.

The developers oppose building height limits because it is against their interests to build and sell less floor space than the maximum allowed. It must also be taken into account that there is plenty of demand for property in Hong Kong. Therefore, placing restrictions on new projects would, from this perspective, be an obstacle to economic development.

On the other hand, building height restrictions would help to preserve the ridgeline and the views of Victoria Harbour and hills.

The number of excessively tall skyscrapers has already brought environmental problems such as the 'urban canyon' and 'heat island' effects. Therefore, in order to limit the damage done to the environment, groups like Green Sense support the introduction of these height restrictions over other economic considerations.

Developer hegemony?

Developers have been able to construct some 'out-of-context' buildings in the past. Before height control was incorporated into OZPs, buildings which were constructed on privately owned land were not subject to restrictions set by the government.

Many say that the government helps to maintain the 'property hegemony'. However, the TPB has been enforcing these restrictions via the OZPs. The developers that want to overturn the board's decision are those that 'missed the boat' - meaning that their new development plans were not approved in time before new legislation on height restrictions was passed in each area.

Despite this, the case illustrates the power that developers wield. Only a handful of companies dominate all aspects of property construction and management; their influence is pervasive throughout Hong Kong. Tam says the developers have monopolies, making the problem difficult to solve.

Voices

'Reda believes that the judicial review is an unfortunate, but necessary, step to ensure that the TPB operates in a fair and reasonable manner, and in accordance with the rules of natural justice.' statement by the Real Estate Developers' Association

'If the developments are subject to height restrictions, the buildings will become 'short, fat buildings' instead of 'tall, thin buildings' under the fixed plot ratio, but that may not bring positive influence to the environment.'

Gerry Yim, chief executive officer of Hysan Development

'The developers press on with their legal battle against the TPB regardless of the untenability of their position. This is very disappointing and serves to undermine public confidence in developers even further.'

Green Sense press release

'Developers have no social responsibility whatsoever. Height restrictions must be stringently imposed and we must aim to achieve the 'staircase effect' where the heights of buildings should increase progressively with distance from the sea.' Roy Tam Hoi-pong, Green Sense head

'When height restrictions were relaxed after the relocation of Kai Tak airport, monster buildings surfaced in the Hung Hom area. That is unacceptable; buildings especially at the harbourfront should be subject to height restrictions. We think that building density could be increased in areas near transport hubs.'

Susan Leung So-wan, council member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects

TIMELINE

Pre-1998

Before the relocation of the old airport in Kai Tak, property developments in the Hung Hom area were subject to statutory Airport Height Restrictions for aviation safety reasons.

1998-2001

These restrictions were relaxed as a result of the airport being moved to Chek Lap Kok. Tall buildings such as the 70-floor Harbourfront Landmark were constructed.

April 2008

New World Development's plan to construct a 265-metre, 60-floor hotel was approved by the Town Planning Board.

January 24, 2011

About 200 conservation activists took to the streets to demand that Henderson Land drop its plans to develop apartments and a golf course on the Nam Sang Wai wetland area.

July 26, 2011

Reda filed an application in the High Court for a judicial review of building height restrictions set by the TPB.

July 27, 2011

The Methodist Church of Hong Kong and the trustees of the Church of Christ in China filed separate applications for judicial reviews of building height restrictions in Wan Chai.

July 28, 2011

The Hysan Group filed a writ accusing the TPB of making an 'arbitrary and irrational' decision to impose restrictions on Leighton Centre and Lee Theatre Plaza, when the adjacent landmark - Times Square - was not subject to any height limits.

August 14, 2011

The Methodist Church of Hong Kong pursued another judicial challenge against the TPB over its decision to limit the height of its church and two schools in Yau Ma Tei.

September 14, 2011

Green Sense criticises Cheung Kong Holdings for its tactic to meet the TPB's condition of 'no net loss of wetland' in their construction project in Yuen Long. The project will allegedly remove embankments and merge several small ponds together to form larger ones. This will lower the ecological value of the fish ponds.

September 24, 2011

CLP Holdings proposed to build three 25-storey apartment buildings on top of a four-storey podium and car park at their headquarters on Argyle Street in Kowloon. Mong Kok residents are critical of the plan as this will create a wall effect, trapping air pollution and generating more noise.

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