Hong Kong residents rally against downtown gentrification

The buildings have a lot features unique to their era

Conservation groups in Hong Kong are lobbying against a controversial plan to demolish a cluster of low-rise tenement buildings in the heart of the city.

Town planners will be meeting on Friday to consider the proposal, which was made by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), a statutory body funded by the Hong Kong government.

The authority wants to pull down about a dozen World War Two-era buildings, each about three-to-five stories high, to make way for two high-rise residential towers.

“We ask the planning authorities to reject the application, and to rethink the entire approach to this area,” says Katty Law, convener of the Central and Western Concern Group.

The buildings, known as tong lau architecture, sport features unique to their era such as curving balconies and ventilated stairways, and are located in the super-trendy Soho district.

Ms Law (left) urges the planners to rethink their entire approach to the area

The area is as popular with locals flocking to its dining and nightlife, as it is with the bus loads of tourists drawn to nearby attractions such as the Man Mo Temple.

In fact, since May, the neighbourhood has been heavily promoted internationally by the Hong Kong Tourism Board as part of its ‘Old Town Central’ walking tours.

In fact, just across the street is Hong Kong’s PMQ district where preserved historic buildings have been turned into a bustling hub for artists and eateries popular with locals and tourists alike.

Preserving the character …

“You won’t see tourists taking selfies in front of high rises,” says Dare Koslow, who owns many tenement properties in Hong Kong, including a spacious, airy flat in one of the buildings being slated for possible demolition.

“Our old city is being exploited to such an extent that soon it won’t be there anymore.”

“This is a very historic neighbourhood,” he adds. “It was rebuilt after the second World War. It deserves better than to be knocked down to make way for high rises.”

“The apartment blocks would be totally out of character and would diminish what we have here.”

Mr Koslow warns the old centre is at risk of being wiped off the map

Mr Koslow purchased his 1,400 sq ft (427 sq m) flat in 2005. He believes it is worth about $3m (£2.3m) today.

He strongly opposes the demolition proposal.

“It’s not about the money. In fact, in 2007, the URA offered me what I had paid for it. I’m passionate about this place,” he says.

… or maximising development potential?

The Urban Renewal Authority has been trying to buy up properties within its project site for years.

In general, it must obtain the agreement of 80% of affected owners, in order to proceed with a given project.

The authority admits in this case that the rate of acquisition has been “not satisfactory” and has therefore applied directly to the Town Planning Board for approval.

In response to objections by conservation groups, the authority says none of the buildings within the project site have been graded by Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Office.

“With the shortage of land supply in urban areas, the URA will try to maximise the development potential of the land sites of the project to increase the supply of residential units, so as to respond to the growing demand for residential units in urban areas from the community,” it says.

The activists disagree, saying the planned residential towers would add a negligible number of new housing units, whilst destroying the character of a historic neighbourhood.

Hong Kong’s town planners will have to decide if the buildings are eyesores to be demolished or historic structures to be preserved.