Rents and complaints about noise are forcing bar owners to leave SoHo

Rocketing rents, along with pressure from a councillor over noise, are forcing bar owners to leave SoHo, reports Mischa Moselle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 9:35am

SoHo faces an uncertain future as a bar and restaurant destination - perhaps a quieter one for its long-term residents and a duller one for patrons.

Restaurant and bar operators are leaving the area to set up shop in Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun and shopping malls amid claims that overzealous enforcement of licensing laws and exorbitant rent rises are making their businesses unviable.

I don't see a very bright future ahead without a correction in the market
Sandeep Sekhri, Dining Concepts

So, what's coming to replace them? The spaces once occupied by Peccato and Bourbon remain empty. Sino Land is building what it describes as a boutique residential property with retail space on Staunton Street, and the imminent opening of a Ralph Lauren shop on the corner of Hollywood Road and Graham Street suggests a future of luxury shops.

"I fear a loss of character and variety," says Sandeep Sekhri, managing director of restaurant group Dining Concepts. The company's portfolio of restaurants in the area includes Olive, Cecconi's Italian, Craftsteak, SoHo Spice and Bouchon.

The change is not just happening at ground level; it is also evident in the apartments above the once busy bars and restaurants as long-term residents move to cheaper and quieter locations.

Meanwhile, two Urban Renewal Authority projects are proceeding on the basis that they will preserve parts of the area's old character, such as the 100-year-old market along Gage Street.

Further pressure for change in SoHo is coming from Democratic Party district councillor Ted Hui Chi-fung, who says the bars and restaurants are causing noise and hygiene problems. Hui is convenor of both the 30 to 40 member concern group on the issue of liquor licences and the alliance for the establishment of the historical zone in Central district.

He claims the outlets have forced long-time residents out of the area. However, restaurant and bar operators say SoHo has seen an influx of new residents in the past 20 years - people who actually want to live in a buzzing nightlife area.

Claim and counter-claim are at the heart of Hui's campaign to protect what he sees as the interests of his constituents. "I feel responsible for them, even without them asking for help," he says. Hui hasn't tallied how many complaints he has received over the years but says they are numerous, and rising.

The councillor has lodged more than 300 objections to licence renewals in the past five years. In 2011 he also led two small street demonstrations. While the number of objections may make Hui seem the most vexatious of litigants, he says, "I still file objections because under the liquor licensing system when restaurants or bars renew their licence, there is no public consultation."

Only through objecting to licence renewals can a third party find out what stipulations the Liquor Licensing Board has put on a venue's licence. Without objecting, a resident cannot know if a bar is flouting its licensing conditions, by staying open later than allowed or allowing patrons to drink outdoors when the licence is for consumption on the premises.

Hui insists his aim is not to drive businesses away from SoHo, but to achieve a balance between the interests of residents and restaurateurs.

But restaurant owners and operators that the Post spoke to say Hui has unrealistic expectations in believing that venues should accept lower profits for the sake of social harmony.

"We make our money after 11pm, or after the 27th of the month, and February is a bitch," says one, requesting anonymity. Margins are low, and forcing strict operating conditions on bars and restaurants makes them unviable as businesses.

Hui also believes he has been misunderstood by bar owners who think he is just blindly filing objections, as he says he has withdrawn many. His aim is to highlight flaws in the licensing system in the hope of having it reformed.

Mediation is Hui's ideal solution. He would set a threshold of 20 or 50 complaints from verified residents about a single bar as being enough to trigger a public hearing, allowing both sides of the case to be heard before a judge, who would decide if a bar's licence terms needed to be changed.

One former SoHo resident, Bethan Greaves, a 37-year-old British music teacher, singer and conductor, says she moved to the area because of the late-night buzz, and moved out because of rent increases.

Greaves sometimes called the police to deal with complaints when she lived over a bar, but found it took many police interventions to make any impact.

"I lived on the first floor, on the corner of Staunton Street and Peel Street. About two years in, the basement was turned into a bar of some description: no sound-proofing, constantly open doors and parties that would start at 11pm.

"After asking them to shut up with no response, I called the police out on them several times. I would also have the delivery men standing outside chatting until the small hours. They also got my ire occasionally," she says.

Hui says the police are limited in the action they can take. The complainant has to stay up in the middle of the night to make the complaint, while police are really only able to target the revellers causing the noise. They are not able to deal with the bar that has allowed its customers to spill out on to the street.

While Hui's critics say that he has taken a blanket ban approach to his battle with SoHo's bars, he claims that the gripes are with a hardcore group of bars and restaurants that allow customers to spill out on the street after midnight.

But the bar operators say they are all being put under pressure to close their windows and doors at 11pm, rather than midnight.

The dispute over the operating hours comes as businesses feel the squeeze of rising rents. According to Sekhri of Dining Concepts, rents have increased 100 per cent in the past four years.

"I don't see a very bright future ahead for SoHo unless there's a correction in the market," Sekhri says.

Rent for the company's Archie B's New York Deli was HK$42,000 a month. When the lease last came up for renewal, the landlord asked for an increase to HK$120,000.

Sekhri says the rise "didn't make any sense to me. I told the landlord, 'Thank you, I don't need it.'"

Rent and licensing issues may bring Hui's objective closer - a SoHo to which residents "can return at night to study and sleep in peace," as he says.