The government may consider scrapping an almost 40-year-old policy that restricts development in Mid-Levels after the MTR's West Island Line opens in 2014. The move could bring bigger developments that increase housing density and make the area's traffic jams worse.
Removing the so-called Mid-Levels moratorium, introduced in 1972 to limit traffic flow to the hilly area - which nevertheless has become highly congested - would allow bigger blocks to be built on 28 sites coming up for redevelopment.
According to a document submitted by the Transport and Housing Bureau to the Central and Western District Council for discussion today, removing the moratorium would only add 250 flats to the 32,080 projected for the area by 2021.
This suggests the impact of the move on traffic flows would be limited. Officials predict that morning peak-hour traffic will grow by 11 per cent by 2021 with the projected home construction, and by 11.74 per cent if the moratorium is lifted.
But a district councillor and a lawmaker believe its assumption that the number of flats in the area will only grow by 2,080 - or 7 per cent - in the next 11 years is unrealistic. The area has 30,000 flats now.
Officials expect the opening of the MTR line to take one in 12 vehicles off the roads around Sai Ying Pun, the University of Hong Kong and Kennedy Town. They also point to road improvement works and plans to build two more escalators - one connecting East Conduit Road to the Sheung Wan MTR station via Seymour Road and Ladder Street, the other between West Conduit Road and the new Sai Ying Pun MTR station via Lyttelton and Bonham roads.
Like the existing Mid-Levels escalator, they would carry people downhill in the morning and uphill the rest of the day. Officials believe the escalators would encourage people who now drive to work to take the escalators.
The findings are contained in a review the government commissioned on the Mid-Levels Moratorium two years ago after the Ombudsman criticised the policy as ill-conceived and poorly planned. The study was meant to show whether the policy was useful in easing Mid-Levels' traffic problems and whether it should be supplemented, strengthened or replaced.
While the government promises the moratorium will not be lifted now, it says doing so once the West Island Line opens will not have much impact on the area's traffic.
There are 420 plots of land in Mid-Levels, but only 47 of them - four government sites and 43 private sites with leases containing restrictions on redevelopment - fall under the moratorium's control. A further 26 sites are designated for government and community use.
That leaves 347 private plots - many of them the sites of old tenements a few storeys high. They are not governed by the moratorium and there are no provisions in their land leases to restrict the size of buildings. The government says only 161 of these unrestricted sites have redevelopment potential.
Some believe blocks dozens of storeys high could be built on them.
'If you say the redevelopment of 161 sites would only add 2,080 flats, that means each site will only bring an extra 13 flats. Is that even logical?' asked legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan.
A government planner said the sites were bound by building height and plot ratio limits in the Buildings Ordinance or outline zoning plan.
The chairman of Central and Western District Council, Chan Tak-chor, said the government's assumption about growth in the number of flats was wrong because the plot ratio of many old buildings was still far below that allowed by the zoning plan. He fears an underestimate of the number of additional flats redevelopment will create will aggravate traffic problems. A 2005 study showed vehicles travelled along Bonham Road and Caine Road, two of the area's major arteries, at only 14.6km/h.
The review the government has sent to the district council says imposing further limits on the gross floor area of new buildings could reduce the number of flats by only 930 and would do little to mitigate traffic jams since the sites are scattered.