Repulse Bay rule: keep the developers happy
SCMP September 10 2008
The Planning Department and its rubber-stamp accomplice, the Town
Planning Board, continue to be among the least transparent of government
bodies, wielding huge influence not only over the physical aspects
of Hong Kong but over the creation of wealth through zoning powers,
It is nearly two years since I wrote here about the appalling state
of buildings along Repulse Bay's famous beach. The southern one-third
is occupied by an Emperor Group development that was supposed to have
been completed in 2003 but remains to be opened - thanks to the Planning
Department's failure to impose rules on influential developers. Emperor
did not have to pay any penalty for eight years of creating an ugly
construction site, impeding direct access to the beach and depriving
visitors of anywhere to eat and drink.
Finally, in place of the original collection of low-rise restaurants,
stalls and bars is a soon-to-be-opened five-storey, 180-metre-long,
glass-walled monolith. This 166,000 sq ft, energy- hungry monster is
called a 'multi- function leisure arcade'.
The other end of the beach is occupied by a low-rise building that
was, for 60 years, a landmark restaurant for beachgoers and tourists
but has been closed for the past four years, after the government refused
to issue a new lease. Now we know why. Having deprived tourists of
this facility, the government via the Town Planning Board has hatched
plans to redevelop the building and a neighbouring car park, rezoning
it with increased height to allow a hotel or commercial development.
A department that had tourists and the public interest at heart would
long ago have re-tendered the existing building to a group able to
renovate it and make it into a beach equivalent of the Peak Cafe (now
the Peak Lookout). But no.
Even though the Emperor development has been long delayed - suggesting
that the beach is not the best place for yet more indoor shopping and
entertainment - the Planning Department is doing what it does best:
finding excuses for raising height restrictions and creating work for
The proposal to allow a hotel is particularly bizarre given the Planning
Department's never-explained decision to rezone a nearby residential
building as a hotel. I refer to the block at 129 Repulse Bay Road,
owned by the Chinachem Group. The site was acquired in 1997 for the
then record price of HK$5.5 billion. Four and a half years and another
HK$2.5 billion saw the construction of a 24-floor apartment block remarkable
for its curved design.
This was originally attributed to Lord Foster, although Arthur C.S.
Kwok Architects and Associates is officially given as the architect.
Some admire it, some hate it, but you cannot miss it. Though given
an occupation permit in March 2003, it remains unoccupied.
It is another of the mysteries of Chinachem, Hong Kong's biggest business
black hole. When controlled by the late Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum, Chinachem
was given permission by the Planning Department to change the apartment
building to hotel use though it lies within the Outline Zoning Plan's
area - deemed exclusively residential. There was no public discussion
of the change, which leaked out rather than being announced.
The commercial logic of a hotel there is dubious, and the conversion
costs could run to another HK$1 billion. That may be why nothing has
happened. So, although another Southside property boom has come and
gone, a residential building sits there with lights twinkling but no
one at home.
As the project has already cost probably HK$12 billion in direct,
interest and opportunity costs, maybe Chinachem will be willing to
throw another HK$1 billion or more at it to make it into a hotel. Who
knows? And does the Planning Department care, as long as the developers
- who are such stalwart supporters of the government and its top ex-employees
- are happy?
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