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, too.

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 contractors.

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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