It is high time the city ditched its "piecemeal" way of revitalising old areas and focused on the big picture by identifying urban slums for redevelopment, a veteran surveyor says.
The Urban Renewal Authority's practice of sprucing up old Hong Kong building-by-building was singled out by Daniel Lam Chun in his new role leading the body's review of its redevelopment model.
Lam, however, acknowledged that a more visionary approach to renewal would require greater financial and policy commitments from the government - especially after the URA ran up a HK$2.3 billion deficit in the 2013/14 financial year.
He pointed to urban slums in Tai Kok Tsui, Sham Shui Po, Shau Kei Wan and Chai Wan, where residential areas were characterised by dilapidated buildings, serious traffic problems, insufficient community facilities and a substandard living environment.
"What the authority should do is 'urban renewal', not 'building renewal'," Lam, also a member of the URA board, told the South China Morning Post.
"But we can only do the latter, given what the government has committed financially. It is a piecemeal approach and offers no planning gains."
Lam was shedding light on how his steering committee, set up last month, would re-examine renewal schemes and the financial sustainability of the URA, which runs on a one-off government injection of HK$10 billion granted in 2002.
His comments coincide with URA chairman Victor So Hing-woh's call last week for the authority to focus on bigger projects instead of redeveloping small, pencil-like buildings.
So had said bigger projects would allow more flexibility in raising the development density, thereby minimising losses.
But Lam said profitability should not come first if the authority was to do well in improving the community.
That said, the reality was that the government often reminded the URA to be "financially prudent", making it difficult to embark on financially demanding projects, he added.
An example was the redevelopment of the densely populated "Thirteen Streets" area in To Kwa Wan, which might result in a loss of well over the deficits of HK$2 billion that other renewal projects had posted, Lam said.
The "Thirteen Streets" proposal, along with many others put forward by the community-based District Urban Renewal Forum as part of a master plan for Kowloon City district, has yet to be endorsed by the authority or the government since being submitted to the Development Bureau in January.
Lam urged the government to give the mission of urban renewal a target, similar to public housing.
"The government offers the Housing Authority full support to meet its three-year [pledge on the maximum wait for public flats]. It did not ask them to build fewer public flats because of financial stress."