Hong Kong’s industrial buildings could still harbour art and culture groups if revitalisation policies are tweaked
Ken Chu says the government’s policy on revitalising industrial buildings should factor in the city’s artistic community, for which spruced-up buildings have meant higher rent or homelessness
Recently drama-related arts groups published an open letter in a Chinese-language newspaper urging the government to solve the perennial space crunch that they have been facing. They called on the government to set aside space in revitalised industrial buildings for drama and theatre groups.
When the policy of revitalising old industrial buildings was first announced in 2009, the local art and cultural community felt encouraged and excited, believing they could finally find affordable spaces to continue to create, experiment, practise and work. However, after all these years, individual artists and small groups have found themselves once again squeezed out by high rents. Restrictive land lease terms for industrial buildings also plays a part.
Let’s face it, assisting artists and creative and cultural workers in relocating to revitalised industrial buildings was never the primary policy objective of the revitalisation scheme. It has been speculated that industrial district renewal and land value optimisation were the ultimate policy objectives.
When the scheme was announced, the government pledged to provide more floor space to meet “Hong Kong’s changing social and economic needs” and the needs of “higher value-added” economic activities, which encompass the cultural and creative sector and five other areas.
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Certainly, it made good sense to breathe new life into severely under-utilised factory buildings. Under this scheme, owners of flatted factories, industrial-office buildings and warehouses in non-industrial zones were permitted to apply for lease modification by paying a premium through instalments for redevelopment, or for whole conversion by paying a waiver fee to change the land lease.
The problem, however, is that owners can surely be expected to raise rent sharply to whoever can afford it as a way to recoup the cost of premium or waiver fee and to realise the revalued land asset price after the industrial building has been redeveloped. Artists or art associations who often operate on shoestring budgets are bound to lose out in the capitalist market’s relentless pursuit of high rents.
But every society needs a thriving, vibrant art and creative community to instil fresh ideas and add vibrancy to the city. The lack of space for our home-grown artists and creative workers will stifle growth.
Last year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stated that the government would consider reactivating the revitalisation scheme and relaxing restrictions on the types of uses of the lower floors of old industrial buildings of a single owner, but this may not be enough to break the cycle of raised rents following revitalisation.
Some kind of rent control with a time limit to afford owners flexibility should be considered to give breathing space to home-grown art groups and cultural workers. In addition, the government should heed the demand by our local art and cultural community to classify art as a kind of industrial activity so that art groups and creative performers can lawfully carry on with their activities, run an art studio or put up live music performances in industrial and factory buildings without fear of breaching the land use conditions.
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But there is no denying that a balance must be struck between nurturing creativity and ensuring safety, lest another tragic fire occurs. For example, couldn’t the Home Affairs Bureau consider designating another class of public entertainment licence for, say, performing art and music venues operating in industrial buildings with a specified limit on the number of audience members or visitors?
Perhaps the government should seriously consider the suggestion by the three theatre groups that in the future in any revitalisation project, a term specifying a certain size of floor area exclusively devoted for art and cultural tenants could be written into the agreement with the owner of a revitalised industrial building, who in return could pay a lower land premium or a waiver fee as an incentive.
As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. If all these efforts fail, our home-grown artists and creative practitioners should look beyond the territory. The Home Affairs Bureau has been working closely with NGOs and Hong Kong’s creative and cultural concerns to explore opportunities in Shenzhen where there is a thriving art and cultural scene.
But, for the time being, let’s hope that the government will come up with positive ideas in the next policy address to respond to the concerns of our art and cultural sector.
Ken Chu is the group chairman and chief executive of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference