HK$700m conservation project lost in time

Flower market shophouses were to get an Urban Renewal Authority revamp. Four years on, the plan looks as tired as the buildings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 5:21am

A plan to conserve a row of historic shophouses in Mong Kok's flower market has been delayed indefinitely, with the Urban Renewal Authority acquiring only half of the properties there.

When the URA announced the HK$710 million scheme in September 2008, it said the 10 pre-war shophouses would be renovated and turned into an "artistic floral market", with the first phase to be completed in 2014.

Four years on, there has been no update on the project - but when questioned by the Post, the authority confirmed that the acquisition was going slower than expected, with some owners not willing to sell.

It has only managed to acquire half of the 37 units within the buildings, and has secured just two shophouses outright.

"We will first go ahead and renovate the two blocks we hold and demolish the illegal structures. We are not in a hurry to buy out the remaining units. There is no timetable for doing so," a spokesman for the authority said.

It had not decided on the use of the two buildings.

He added that the row of shophouses, No 190 to 212 Prince Edward Road West, faced no redevelopment threat because the authority was now the main landlord.

But the condition of the buildings is not satisfactory. As the Post observed, illegal structures are present at the rear of some of the shophouses and some of the fire escapes were blocked with rubbish. Residents and shopkeepers said the top unit at No 196 had recently been subdivided into two levels for five flats.

When the shophouses were built by Franco-Belgian land developer Credit Foncierre d'Extreme Orient in 1932, Prince Edward was a community of three- and four-storey shophouses and apartment blocks.

For the surviving row, which has grade-two historic status, the past two decades have seen most of the ground-floor shops occupied by florists, while filmmakers and dancers have taken over the upper studios. A few remain as flats.

Peter Lee Siu-man, campaign manager of the Conservancy Association, said it was unacceptable that the historic buildings were occupied by subdivided flats. "The buildings' condition may not be very bad now but they are gradually falling into disrepair," he said.

"It's disappointing that the authority has failed to execute the project on schedule despite a high-profile start. You can see the authority accord a lower priority to heritage conservation, compared to the way it handles redevelopment projects, for which a clear timetable is set."

Lee called on the authority to step up efforts to negotiate with owners.

The owners, some of which are investment companies, could not be reached for comment.

Tenants have mixed feelings about the URA taking over. The Made In Hong Kong film director Fruit Chan Kuo, who rents an office in one of the shophouses, was glad his landlord had not sold up and said the URA's track record in conservation did little to inspire his confidence. Citing one of the URA's projects in Wan Chai as an example, he added: "If one day the URA really takes over, I hope they will let me stay on at a reasonable rent. They have turned Wo Cheong Pawn Shop into exclusive restaurants for the rich and tourists."

Chan moved in 20 years ago when Face/Off director John Woo was also a tenant. Now actor Chow Yun-fat rents the office next door to Chan's, and film producer Amy Chin is downstairs.

"I like this place. It's well connected with public transport, and you are surrounded by flowers. It's a lively neighbourhood."

His building appeared the best maintained among the 10 shophouses and he said the landlord was willing to invest in its upkeep.

On the ground floor, Cheng Shui-mui, who runs a flower business set up by her father in the '80s, said she felt anxious not knowing if her landlord would sell up to the URA.

"If the authority one day really takes over, I hope it can let us come back," she said.