Balance needs to be restored to city's development needs

Murray Building's high price tag reflects scarcity of sites for commercial use amid focus on homes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 3:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 5:29am

The HK$4.4 billion purchase of the Murray Building in Central last week raised eyebrows in the city with a sale price that beat expectations by 35 per cent. But Wheelock subsidiary Harbour Centre Development evidently saw a few good reasons to justify the high price for a building that it aims to convert into a hotel.

One is optimism about the outlook for the hotel sector. The fact it was the only site in Central available for sale presents as another. If we look at the land situation in core business and shopping areas, you will not find any government-owned site available for hotel and office development. The situation is expected to continue with the government's focus on building more flats.

Finding sites for residential development has become the government’s first priority

A source at the Planning Department said that finding sites suitable for residential development had become the government's first priority. "We have to find if there is any site that can be rezoned for residential use in urban areas. It doesn't matter how small the site is. We also need to review the possibility of increasing the development plot ratio," he said.

Most of the planning studies carried out by the department have been about the residential development possibilities in new areas such as Yuen Long South, the Anderson Road Quarry, Lok Ma Chau Loop and northeast New Territories.

This approach differs from past practice. The department used to make planning studies on diverse topics, from the macro to micro-design of the city. One of the studies looked at how to preserve views to ridge lines from Victoria Harbour, ensuring skyscrapers did not mar these unique views.

The idea of a shopping pedestrian area in Mong Kok also came from planning studies in 2009. It improved the shopping environment in the area and also provided a cultural area for young people.

We need to find residential sites in order to maintain sufficient land supply, but we must have a good balance in development. What will happen if the government focuses only on offering residential sites, without a complete development plan? Problems of over-development in urban areas, such as lack of social facilities and support infrastructure, would be exacerbated. Imagine how that will affect traffic, air quality and views.

When the Planning Department used to decide on town planning, they would consider the use of sites based on the needs of the whole district. This also meant deciding whether a project could be supported by the infrastructure.

But now the town planning regime appears to be about getting as many residential sites as possible into the city. That is why they are considering building homes in country parks.

The Planning Department should be the chief designer of our city, not a mere vehicle for the implementation of the government's housing policy.

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