Hutchison Whampoa has jumped-started leasing of its 1.2 million square feet, unfinished Cheung Kong Centre in anticipation of stiff competition from another 500,000 sq ft, grade-A office development at the airport railway station in Central. The projects are not expected to be completed until 1999. Hutchison has appointed Jones Lang Wootton (JLW) as the sole agent to soft-market its project even though it is still waiting for government consent to pre-lease. Asking rents at the Hilton Hotel redevelopment site are expected to be $70-$75 per sq ft on the net area basis, or $55-$60 on the gross, according to agents. The southwest office tower at the new MTR Central station, being built by Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land Development, was asking about $70 per sq ft, agents said. Rents for some buildings in core Central are higher than Hutchison's asking rents, although agents said that the older stock could not match many of the specifications of new buildings. Agents said that demand for space in the 59-storey Cheung Kong Centre was expected to be keen because of its prime central location and because the building was square. The building features a 21,000 sq ft floor plate and 1,000 car parking spaces. According to property agents, the building has generated considerable tenancy interest, with merchant banks Peregrine Investment and Deutsche Morgan Grenfell 'seriously considering' taking out as many as 10 floors. Agents said that Hutchison, its holding company Cheung Kong (Holdings) and other associates would take up 'a good chunk' of about 150,000 sq ft in the new building. Cheung Kong occupies about 70,000 sq ft, or about seven floors, in the 217,000 square foot China Building. Meanwhile, some agents are predicting that rents for grade-A space in Central will rise - though only slightly - for the next few months at a rate of about 1 per cent per month. JLW officials said office rents would continue to grow until mid-1998 when they would begin to tail off. 'Rents in Central now are pretty stable,' said Sam Whiffin, JLW's Pacific director of Hong Kong's commercial division, 'but the pressure is upward because of the lack of space right now.' JLW commercial leasing director Fung Kin-keung, said: 'It is difficult to find anything in excess of 10,000 sq ft.' However, with three to four million sq ft of new grade-A office space throughout the SAR slated to come on to the market in the second half of next year, rents inevitably will dip. Property analyst Michael Leary said: 'Landlords are going to have to offer significant inducements to keep their tenants. 'It is reasonable to expect that when you have a significant supply that there has to be weakness in rents.' Victor Lee, senior manager of commercial leasing with Chesterton Petty, said landlords could not afford to be sticky on renewals. However, several analysts - including Michael Green, a director with Salomon Brothers - believe that there should be no problem with future space take-up. 'Quite the contrary,' he said. 'We may not have enough space.'