Gentrification or Redevelopment?

Light from a new fashion boutique floods an alley
near Blake Garden, Hong Kong

Alan Lo Yeung-kit is an unlikely critic of urban renewal. Three of his successful restaurants — Classified, Press Room and The Pawn — are located in Urban Renewal Authority projects in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai.

Critics have accused his businesses of taking part in the kind of URA-style renewal that is destroying the character of Hong Kong’s old neighbourhoods. But Lo is no fan of bulldozer redevelopment. “Our whole approach to urban renewal needs to be rethought,” he said.

Lo said he has come up with an alternative model for urban renewal, one that is both profitable and preservation-based. Last year, he and partner Darrin Woo founded a new design and development firm, Blake’s, that was inspired by the old neighbourhood around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. The firm’s first project took a mid-century tong lau at 226 Hollywood Road and converted it into four luxury apartments. The units sold out soon after they went on sale in November, fetching more than HK$25 million apiece.

“It’s about getting out of the box-standard big-developer approach and making something that fits the neighbourhood,” says Lo. “The vision is to rethink an old, slightly sleepy neighbourhood with respect for what has been in the district for a long time, and without having to knock things down.”

With the Central and Western District Council considering the installation of a new escalator on Pound Lane, the Blake Garden area — now a web of quiet streets and low-rise buildings that are becoming increasingly fashionable with creative types, professionals and expats — could well be on its way to becoming Hong Kong’s next trendy neighbourhood. Small-scale projects like Blake’s have been slowly gentrifying the area, but big developers have also been sniffing around, hoping to buy up blocks of old tenements for redevelopment.

The question now is which model of renewal it will take: gradual gentrification or wholesale redevelopment?

It is a tough choice, said Kathy Law Ngar-ning, a neighbourhood activist who grew up a five-minute walk from Blake Garden. She sees the area caught between two undesirable fates. One, led by projects like 226 Hollywood Road, would keep the neighbourhood’s character intact but at unaffordable prices. The other, sparked by escalator-driven redevelopment, would obliterate its low-rise scale and sense of community.

“All we can hope is the change will be gradual,” she said.

The changes have multiplied rapidly: in the past two years, more than 20 new design workshops, architecture studios, boutiques and cafés have opened in the area, replacing the printers, coffinmakers and metalworkers that have long dominated the neighbourhood.

Law said the changes have, so far, kept in tune with the neighbourhood’s spirit. “The people who have moved into this area really treasure the things that make it special, like the tong lau and the very close-knit community,” she said. “They just want to do their own thing quietly.”

One of the newcomers is Mei Mak, who opened a small café, Homei, on Tai Ping Shan Street last year. “I didn’t want to have such a heavy burden from rent that I would have to work for the landlord’s sake,” she said. “The feeling here is so good. Not too many people pass by. If you go to Causeway Bay, Central or Soho, it’s so packed you don’t get to talk to people as much.”

Many of the area’s business owners say that an escalator or high-rise development would ruin the atmosphere that attracted them in the first place. “You can breathe here,” said Sin Sin, who opened an art gallery and lifestyle store on Sai Street in 2005, after being priced out of On Lan Street in Central. “This is the best area for creativity because people here are much more laid back, much more mellow than anywhere else.”

The fate of nearby Soho, where ever-rising rents have led to a revolving-door landscape of chain restaurants and struggling small businesses, is a cautionary tale around these parts. If an escalator were built through the neighbourhood, said Sin, the Blake Garden area could follow a similar path. “If it gets to be like that, that’s the time I move out.”

Urban planning critic John Batten, who has lived in the neighbourhood for nearly 20 years, is more blunt. “The escalator would be the death of the area,” he said. Noise levels would increase, prices would go up and developers would be keen to exploit the area’s 30-storey height limits. “You have to wonder who is pushing this idea behind the scenes,” he said.

The escalator’s chief proponent has been the local branch of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, whose community relations officer, Kathy Siu Ka-yi, can be seen on dozens of posters and banners supporting the project.

“There is a serious problem in transport in the Mid-Levels because there are only two escalators,” Siu said. “It is very hard for the elderly to walk around the district because there are so many ladder streets.”

When asked whether the escalator would encourage the neighbourhood’s redevelopment, Siu said that it would be difficult to control the free market. “Maybe the change will help people improve their living situation,” she said.

“I don’t particularly see the point of a new escalator,” said Alan Lo. “It’s good in terms of guiding traffic to this part of town but the worry is that, for those of us who enjoy and appreciate that village quality of Sheung Wan, this additional traffic would inevitably turn it into a Soho or Lan Kwai Fong type of district.”

He pointed to the Star Street neighbourhood of Wan Chai as a similarly quiet, inaccessible area that has been recently transformed by big developers and high-rise development. “Wan Chai is a classic example of what not to do,” he said. “Star Street has been gentrified and developed to the point that it now feels sterile.”

The only way to prevent that from happening around Blake Garden, said Batten, is to down-zone the area to permit only low-rise development. But the chances of this happening would be slim. “If you live on the Peak or in Kowloon Tong, you get height restrictions. But not here,” he said.

From death to design

Occupying a small, hilly patch of land between Ladder Street in the east, the Tung Wah Hospital in the west, Hollywood Road in the north and Bonham Road in the south (click here to see a map) the Blake Garden area might be up-and-coming today, but that wasn’t the case for most of the past century.

“Ten years ago, this area was still associated with death,” said lifelong resident Katty Law. First settled by Chinese migrants in the late nineteenth century, the neighbourhood quickly became an overcrowded when the colonial British government banned all Chinese from living in Central. In 1894, the squalid living conditions led to a devastating outbreak of bubonic killing more than 2,500 of the area’s residents. In response, the government razed most of the area and built Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s first public park.

The legacy of the plague, along with the presence of coffinmakers and a temple that serves as a shrine to the dead, left the neighbourhood with an inauspicious reputation that kept people away. So did the relative lack of access: most of the neighbourhood is made up of dead-end streets, pedestrian-only terraces and steep staircases, which has prevented the kind of redevelopment seen to the west in Sai Ying Pun and to the east in Central.

“Because there is no through traffic, you won’t believe how quiet it gets at night,” said John Batten, who has lived in the area since 1992. “In the morning, all I hear is birds and children playing in the park and people playing basketball.”

The previous owner of Batten’s 400-square-foot flat was a family of four who were looking for a bigger place to live. Similar exchanges have taken place over the past ten years, as newcomers, usually singles or couples, buy and renovate apartments in old buildings — attracted, in many cases, by the quiet, out-of-the-way atmosphere that the neighbourhood’s once-malignant helped create.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on March 27, 2011.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday March 30 2011at 12:03 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Gentrification or Redevelopment?”

  • bochecha says:

    > “the government razed most of the area and built Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s first public park.”

    I wonder if that wouldn’t be a way to save it.

    I’m new to Hong Kong, so I don’t know how these things work, but in France we have a way to have “monuments” (old buildings, constructions or even natural places) be protected as some kind of “historical heritage”.

    Once something is classified as one, it becomes much harder to do anything in the area, especially things that don’t respect the traditional area.

    Isn’t there an equivalent in Hong Kong?

    I’m currently leaving just above Blake Garden, and I would hate to see this area destroyed by an escalator. :(

  • The simple answer is no, there is no way to do that, because Hong Kong has no comprehensive heritage policy that looks at historic buildings and monuments in their broader context. If something is declared a monument, like the Museum of Medical Sciences (the red brick building on the southeast corner of Blake Garden), it exists in isolation.

    That said, Hong Kong recently established its first heritage conservation district on Wing Lee Street, which is now protected from redevelopment, but this was a very ad hoc measure and there still isn’t any real framework for doing the same thing in other areas of the city.

    I think the real issue with areas like Tai Ping Shan Street and Blake Garden is not preservation, it’s scale. One of the reasons this is such an exceptional area is because it’s mostly low-rise, with 3-7 storey walkup buildings. At the moment, though, zoning laws allow buildings up to 30 storeys high, even on terraces with no vehicular access. If those height limits were changed it would effectively insulate the area from wholesale redevelopment… but that won’t happen because it would set a precedent against endless growth.

  • bochecha says:

    @Christopher: Thanks for the detailed answer.

    I guess once the escalator is built, I’ll just have to wait for the landlord to ask us to leave because he has sold the apartment to redevelopment. :(