If the URA is to act as an instigator for renewal, it needs to open up to outside ideas and become a body paving the way for the city's future.

Is the URA a genuine force for urban renewal?

Matthew Scott Ibarra says the URA must make clear whether it is a genuine force for urban renewal, in which case it deserves its special powers - or whether it is just another developer

To understand how the Urban Renewal Authority is different from its predecessor, the Land Development Corporation - and perhaps has strayed from its original mission to better the standard of living for local residents - look no further than the authority's Hanoi Road project, completed in 2007.

The project, developed jointly with New World Development, is the 11th tallest building in Hong Kong with a gross floor area of 102,625 square metres. It contains 345 residential flats, about 270 more flats than the previous dilapidated site. The residential area of 45,600 square metres is approximately only twice the original 27,309 square metres. In the old site, the area per residential unit was about 364 square metres while in the new development, this has dropped to about 132 square metres, a mere 36 per cent of the previous figure.

The bulk area of the development, 57,025 square metres, went to commercial and retail space and the Hyatt Regency. Given the city's housing needs, how could this loss of residential area be permitted?

Similarly, how could the URA now be permitted to launch a Tai Kok Tsui site for a hotel, with no residential component at all? The 7,914 sq ft site was originally designated for residential use, but the authority obtained Town Planning Board approval to change the land use to a hotel and is now inviting expressions of interest for the development, which would also include space for commercial and back-of-house facilities.

Glaringly, the authority's approach does "achieve better utilisation of land", the same as any developer would. But this does not constitute urban renewal nor improving the housing or environment of Hong Kong.

Instead of being guided by the purpose of bettering housing and the environment, the authority seems to be concerned only with replacing the old with the new, which means seeking larger mixed-use real estate developments that are not related to residential environments.

What, then, makes the URA different from any other developer, except that it is exempted from paying tax and can apply for land resumption? That's immense power for any developer.

What exactly is the authority's role? Historically, urban renewal constitutes a methodology to solve, attend to, or instigate change in urban environments. In Hong Kong, the Land Development Corporation was founded in 1988 with the purpose to "improve the standard of housing and the environment … by undertaking, encouraging, promoting and facilitating urban renewal".

Though vague in specific directives, its intention was strikingly clear: to better the standard of living, both housing and the environment, for residents.

Since the Shek Kip Mei housing estate was built in the 1950s, Hong Kong's housing demand has continuously fuelled development. The demand for private and public housing served as an engine for economic growth and a lucrative investor market currently propagating a trend for subdividing flats and for new buildings being designed with units under 200 sq ft, similar to those at Shek Kip Mei.

With such a robust market, where is the need for controlled urban renewal in Hong Kong. where the market moves so quickly that the city organically redevelops at rates unseen throughout most of the world?

After the Land Development Corporation was dissolved in 2001, its assets were transferred to the Urban Renewal Authority, which was conceptually to act in the same way. However, its purpose was changed. Among several other duties, the authority is seen as "having the responsibility of improving the standard of housing and the built environment".

The change from the "purpose... to improve the standard of housing and the environment" to the "responsibility of improving the standard of housing and the built environment" marks a grave shift. Instead of contemplating the holistic inhabited environment, the authority now focuses only on the building, the physical object, removing the context of the city, the neighbourhood and the individual.

Switching "purpose" to "responsibility" and adding "built" signifies a change from one who acts for the betterment of the city and society to one that acts on behalf of itself by utilising the city and society - from one that had a purpose of seeking an end goal of better living environments to one that has the responsibility to keep improving, or changing, the "built environment" without end.

If the URA is to act as instigator for renewal, it needs to publicly open up to outside ideas and studies and become a body paving the way for the city's future, not following on the heels of developers or "making land available" for real estate ventures. If it is to act as a developer, its land resumption ability should be removed and taxes reinstated, as those powers must not be held by a mere developer.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Losing authority