People living and working in SoHo are calling on the government to make better use of old buildings left derelict by a 14-year delay to an urban redevelopment project.
Under a 1998 proposal, Staunton Street, Wa In Fong West, Wa In Fong East, Shing Wong Street and Chung Wo Lane were to be redeveloped.
But the project has since come to a halt as half of the landlords in the area - including private developers, investors and the original owners - refuse to sell their properties.
The stalemate has left buildings the government was able to buy and others owned by developers in an idle and decrepit state, turning part of the much sought after neighbourhood into a 'ghost town'.
A visit by the South China Morning Post to the area found many walk-ups so run down that their tin roofs were filled with rust, the external walls were dirty, and the windows were covered by dust. Back lanes were full of trolleys, cartons and nylon bags. Many ground-floor shops had closed and some flats upstairs appeared to be vacant. The few buildings that are well maintained stand in stark contrast to the rest of the area.
Residents now want the Urban Renewal Authority to refurbish old blocks that it has already bought, instead of leaving them vacant at a time when the city is facing a severe shortage of urban land.
Dare Koslow said many flat owners like him had spent enormous sums to maintain properties while the URA and some private developers let their buildings deteriorate.
'It is very unpleasant to see those buildings in such a poor condition,' said Koslow, originally from New York, who bought his home in Staunton Street in 2007.
But URA executive director (planning and project control) Iris Tam Siu-ying said the authority would not invest in upgrading buildings that will eventually be torn down. However, it remains unknown when redevelopment will take place, pending the purchase of all flats.
'We are unable to start the redevelopment without resuming the whole site. We will continue to negotiate with the owners to keep our project going,' Tam said. She admitted the project was the thorniest in the authority's history.
The delay is also upsetting those who live or work nearby.
Elias Lam Chun-ho, who runs a shop selling fashion accessories in Shing Wong Street, described the area as 'an orphan who has been abandoned and forgotten by both the government and most Hong Kong people'.
'When the film Echoes of the Rainbow hit the box office a couple of years ago, Hong Kong people were anxious to conserve the old buildings in nearby Wing Lee Street. Now their passion for the district seems to have died down,' Lam said.
'We decided to open a shop here because we really enjoy its tranquility and like the convenient location ... just a few minutes' walk from the SoHo area. We believe this area should have some special tiny shops like ours to attract locals and tourists. But the reality is most shops are vacant because the URA does not rent them out. For those that have been bought up by private investors, the rent is too high for small businesses.
'The area is like a ghost town.'
Lam and district councillor Cheng Lai-king believe the URA should refurbish the old buildings for other uses, such as hostels for young budget travellers.
'The whole area seems dormant,' said Cheng, chairwoman of the Central and Western Concern Group on Urban Renewal Projects. 'It may take years to start the redevelopment. During this time, the URA should make use of these buildings. This is a very nice area. It would be a complete waste if we simply let it decay.'