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Chp 130, Wanchai Mega Tower – Forty years champion for the environment

Wanchai Mega Tower

The 66-storey Hopewell Centre was the first mega-tower of Wanchai when it was completed in 1980. But if its developer Sir Gordon Wu had his way, it would be dwarfed by a 94-storey hotel, the true Mega Tower as it later came to be called.

Approved in 1994 by the Town Planning Board, the 2,200-room hotel was to be built on a site between Kennedy Road, Queen’s Road East and the historic Ship Street, a large part of the area being wooded slopes. Despite the approval, the developer Hopewell Holding owned only less than half of the land and had to acquire the rest before the development could go ahead. Furthermore, the approval was subject to planning gains committed by Hopewell, including surrender of several pieces of land for open space development and preservation of Nam Koo Terrace, a historic house.

It took Hopewell another ten years to acquire the small lots near Ship Street, but half of the site still belongs to the government. Then, in 2004, it submitted an application to the Town Planning Board for two towers to be erected, each more than 60 storeys. The Town Planning Board’s Metro Planning Committee rejected it in July 2004 as the visual and traffic impacts were both unacceptable. The developer went on to apply for a review to be heard by the full Board.

Needless to say, the Mega Towers – now in the plural – met with strong objection from the public, especially residents of Wanchai. To its credit the developer was very open with the application, publishing detailed information for public consumption and helping organize public forums to debate its case.

Led by Betty Ho, CA submitted a rezoning request to the Town Planning Board in September 2004 as a proposal to resolve the stand-off. CA started by summarizing the objections to the Mega Tower development:

  • First, the “wall effect” created by the two huge blocks was unacceptable. It was incompatible with the Kennedy Road neighbourhood a well as destructive of the character of “Old Wanchai”. CA warned that if the Board approved the Mega Towers, it “risks becoming the Destroyer of the Wanchai as we know it.”
  • Secondly, the two towers would generate huge additional demand on traffic which the already congested Kennedy Road could hardly absorb, not to speak of the worsening air quality hazards.
  • Thirdly, the development would necessitate large scale felling of mature trees, including 100-year-old banyan trees merging with the pre-war stonewall, in what was the largest woodland in Wanchai. For these the covered open space would be a very poor replacement. The development would deprive Wanchai residents of a useful and functional visual and spiritual relief.
  • Fourthly, CA objected to the development on social justice grounds as half of the land belonged to the Government, including roads, open space and the existing wooded slope area. As inner Wanchai was a congested area which would be further aggravated by the planned urban renewal schemes, the government land should remain as open space and green belt to mitigate the urban congestion for the benefit of the public, rather than just a single developer.

CA’s proposal was to limit the development right to what was allowed on the developer’s own lots. This could be achieved either by zoning all the government-owned land as Greenbelt, or specifying a maximum development intensity of the whole site which was half of that proposed by the developer. The practical effect would be to half the size of the development originally proposed. That would still remain a sizeable development but it was considered a win-win solution as it satisfied the community aspirations for lower density and more public space without jeopardising the land-owner’s development right.

The case caught the attention of the Legislative Council which decided to convene a “case conference”. So the Town Planning Board decided to defer a decision until after the LegCo hearing was held, even though it duly held the review on 10 December 2004 and heard Hopewell present an improved scheme with number of storeys reduced to 58, less tree felling and more open space.

The LegCo conference held on 20 December casted doubt on the development and questioned the impact on trees and traffic, as well as the use of the government land.

On 23 February 2005 CA wrote to Town Planning Board to request the Board to reject the application. The Board came to a decision two days later to reject the application. Although CA’s rezoning request was also rejected, the Town Planning Board’s decision was hailed as a victory for civil society and for good sense in planning.

But Hopewell vowed to come back. In a surprise move, instead of appealing against the Board’s decision, it revived the 14-year old application – the original 94-storey Mega Tower – in 2008, on the ground that development already commenced with the submission of the building plan long ago. Thus Hopewell did not have to go back to the Town Planning Board; all that it would need would be for the government to agree to exchange land with it, i.e. to let Hopewell acquire the remaining half of the public land. On 1 April 2008, Hopewell consulted the Development and Transport Sub-committee of the Wanchai District Council about a proposed road improvement on Kennedy Road and Queen’s Road East in preparation for the Mega Tower project. The revival of an outdated plan which had been judged clearly incompatible with Wanchai caused much indignation. Besides the transport and environmental impacts, whether or not government would be right to exchange land with Hopewell to expedite the development has remained a hotly contested issue. In September 2008, CA put in another rezoning request to the Town Planning Board proposing to turn the government land into Greenbelt so as to reduce the scale of the development. As of the end of 2008, the case was still being debated.

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August 19, 2015 - Posted by | Dr WK Chan book

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