URA constructing a better image
The Urban Renewal Authority has had an image problem, often being likened to a bulldozer that colludes with property developers. Under a revised strategy, it is beginning to pay attention to the needs of residents and shopkeepers of areas being revitalised and it is slowly changing perceptions. The implementation of its flat-for-flat option, as an alternative to cash compensation, is a welcome shift. Neighbourhoods will at last have a chance to thrive and sustainably grow, rather than being torn apart as has too often before been the case.
Conflicts arose in the past because residents felt that redevelopment was being foisted on them. The perception was understandable due to the way the URA went about its work. It identified run-down areas, devised a development scheme, acquired the affected properties and handed the project over to developers. The people directly affected - those living and working in the buildings slated for removal - had no say in the process. They were simply handed compensation and forced to other parts of Hong Kong.
Pushing people out of districts that they have called home for years is no way to go about making our city more livable. Dismantling and scattering communities, social networks and areas of important character, history or collective memory is not a constructive way to approach revitalisation. After a string of controversies, redevelopment is now being approached more sensitively. The project at Pak Tai Street in Ma Tau Kok will test how effective the latest phase is.
Outwardly, it seems to strike the right balance. Residents of the 55-year-old, eight-storey buildings will be able to either get cash compensation at a rate equivalent to a seven-year-old building in the same area, or get a new flat in the development or a nearby one on the Kai Tak site. They will have the option of spending more on a larger apartment on higher floors or, if they choose one of the smaller ones, will be able to get a cash payment to make up for the difference. Dilapidated buildings will be replaced by modern blocks and the possibility of communities remaining intact.
There are those who will quibble, of course. The flats on offer to be swapped will be smaller than those to be pulled down and they will be of modest, no-frills design. This has been done intentionally by the URA in the name of affordability. Owners will also have to find temporary housing until the flats are ready in 2016 for Kai Tak and 2018 for Pak Tai Street. Some people may simply take the compensation and move to cheaper homes elsewhere, pocketing the profit. But the fact that the URA has adopted a community-friendly approach to redevelopment is nonetheless a good step that has to be broadened as much as possible.