Being made of equigranular medium-grained biotite ‘Kowloon’ granite, the Mid-Levels area is unlikely to collapse in on itself. Instead, the developers will continue to turn it from a dense forest of high-rises into something more like one humungous block crisscrossed by foul, gloomy canyons, at the bottom of which lie permanently gridlocked vehicles.
Apartments at Merry Terrace, a 47-year-old building in Castle Road, Mid-Levels are being snapped up like the latest pink Hello Kitty iPad. The reason is that, after it hits the grand old age of 50, its successor will probably be added to this (MS Excel) database of giant new buildings that have been squeezed into spaces previously occupied by small old ones. Thanks to the Hong Kong government’s latest favour to the property tycoons, a developer that can buy 80% of the units in a block can force the remaining owners to sell theirs. The government claimed that this would help solve the problem of crumbling ancient structures in unfashionable districts collapsing and killing people. In fact, it is simply permission to evict people from well-built, safe properties in desirable neighbourhoods, so property giants can redevelop and make a vast profit. Henderson seems to be the busy buyer at Merry Terrace.
Designing Hong Kong want to hear about similar cases; the pressure group thinks some owners and developers, fearful that tougher planning regulations may be in the pipeline, are in a rush to take advantage of the lower compulsory sales level. Another (perhaps less naïve) reason not to delay redevelopment is explained by Designing HK’s Mr Zimmerman:
Even in our distorted property market, who will want to buy a ‘luxury’ apartment in such an unlivable neighborhood? Perhaps the mysterious buyers from 39 Conduit Road knew what they were doing when they walked away from their sales agreements. Tseung Kwan O with great harbour views and transport services and infrastructure which are well planned in line with the permitted density starts to look like paradise. Sell Mid-Levels, buy TKO.
The first time I went to Tseung Kwan O, I came out of a tunnel and thought, “Oh my God, I’ve died and gone to Alphaville.” Even the government’s most psychopathic planners felt bad about the density of the place after they stood back and saw what they had done. But it does look distinctly attractive compared with the even more cluttered hillside above Central.
Going further back, the first time I strolled along Robinson Road, I thought, “It would be nice to live here.” Within a year or so, I was sharing a huge old apartment in a row of two-storey blocks – number 31/33, if I recall – up a driveway, with some trees around, opposite what was then a Park N Shop (now, of course, a strip of real estate agents). Knife-sharpeners strolled the streets calling for customers, a stinky tofu vendor with a bubbling wok waited for passing schoolkids, and the main noise at night was mahjong. One day, crossing the road from the supermarket, I wondered where all the extra cars were coming from. High-rises soon started to replace many of the older buildings, and by the time developers jammed a particular monstrosity right on top of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, I had fled down the hill for the grottier neighbourhood’s rustic, old-world charm.
Looking at Designing Hong Kong’s database, I note that Swire and Henderson happen to be among the companies most involved in cramming mega-towers with car parks and club houses into the once-idyllic district. By coincidence, these happen to be the two developers in my modest stock portfolio. So if they despoil the environment, at least I get a slice of the profit, and if I lose out financially, the place doesn’t get too wrecked. This is the nearest thing the solid-concrete Mid-Levels has to a hedge.
My own humble abode, built in the early 1970s, won’t be eligible for the 80% scam for a while; it would take 90% to trigger compulsory sales, which you wouldn’t get because we still have a quorum of extremely cantankerous, immovable and apparently immortal oldies who won’t budge, ever. As for me… I’d be lying if the per-square-foot prices up at Merry Terrace didn’t leap off the screen and yell “Ker-ching! Ker-ching!” into my face. All morning.
Tips of properties being picked off in advance of an ‘80% kill’ can be emailed to paul “at” designinghongkong.com