Gritty area to get glitzy makeover

Gritty area to get glitzy makeover

The air smells of sawdust that dances out from wood workshops. Sweaty men unload crates of goods from all over the world into dark warehouses. Nearby, a factory is dusty with the flour milled there.

In a decade or two, all these could be gone; the haphazard slouch of decrepit buildings replaced by sparkling skyscrapers. The gritty industrial area of Ngau Tau Kok (or Ox Horn), part of Kwun Tong - along with Kai Tak and Kowloon Bay - is slated to be transformed into a glitzy waterfront business district called Kowloon East.

Billed as Hong Kong's second central business district (CBD), it will span 488ha and yield 52 million sq ft of office space - double that of Central.

The man given the task of transforming the area, Mr Raymond Lee, head of the government's Energising Kowloon East Office, enthuses about how it will become a place to work, live and play.

In particular, it will be key in satisfying a voracious appetite for office space in the city - demand grows at an estimated 1.1 million sq ft a year.

"We are running out of space," says Mr Lee simply, in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Compared with other financial centres, the size of Hong Kong's CBD in Central is relatively small, at 23 million sq ft. London weighs in at 130 million sq ft and New York City at 200 million sq ft.

Hong Kong's closest rival, Singapore, has 21.6 million sq ft in its CBD, but that is being supplemented by Marina Bay's 30.4 million sq ft. This year, Singapore's prime CBD office rents dipped to half those of Hong Kong.

But in Hong Kong, where urban living is compressed in pockets amid verdant hills, any ambitious development plan will mean a tug between the old and the new.

And the creation of Kowloon East will mean the loss of the rough-and-tumble streetscape that featured prominently in films such as Johnnie To's Mad Detective.

Mr Lee pledges that his office will embark on a "new approach in managing our urban transformation in an organic way". The government will not bulldoze existing buildings where "economic activity is still vibrant", he says, as it had done in the past.

Instead, it will improve public infrastructure and offer "one-stop services" to facilitate developers seeking to develop new skyscrapers.

The first step has been taken: rebranding the area, changing directional signs from "Kwun Tong Industrial Area" to "Kwun Tong Business Area".

He paints a vision of how it will look: There will be waterfront parks and walkways linking key nodes. There will be areas beneath a flyover where artists can perform. There will be a 9km monorail network with 12 stations to trundle around the district, currently served by three MTR stations.

For now, the area is a bit of a trek for bankers used to Central. But the 45-minute train ride from the city will be halved when a line linking Kai Tak to Admiralty is up in 2020.

The focus on connectivity is lauded. Mr Simon Ng, from public policy think-tank Civic Exchange, says: "Before planning the land use, they are planning the transport modes and walkways. This is a new approach which we welcome."

Within the district, Kai Tak - a blank slate, as it was the site of the former airport until 1998 - will be the first to be ready. A cruise terminal designed by British architect Norman Foster has been completed, and will open on June 12.

The town will have a mix of offices and homes, plus a sports stadium. In five years, it will provide 5.4 million sq ft of office space, which will double to 11 million sq ft in a decade, says Mr Lee.

There is no fixed timeline for the other two towns. Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong - in Hong Kong's oldest industrial area - host factories and homes.

Manufacturers started moving out to southern China from the 1980s, leaving some units empty.

In came artists and musicians, taking advantage of the sprawling space and relatively low rents. About 1,000 indie bands have resettled in the area.

Developers were equally intrepid, converting some factories to commercial use, housing 25,000 offices now. It is this "organic transformation" that the government wants to facilitate, says Mr Lee.

A recent delegation of companies visited his office to sniff out opportunities.

This month, Manulife Financial Corp paid HK$4.5 billion (S$720 million) for an office tower in Kowloon East - the second-highest price on record for a Hong Kong tower.

There are challenges though. So far, only 26 out of about 300 industrial buildings in the district - 80 per cent of which are strata-titled - have redevelopment plans.

There are also fears that the local identity - creative hipsters toting electric guitars at cha chan teng (Hong Kong-style cafes) along with handymen wielding electric saws - would be supplanted by grey suits and sterile skyscrapers.

But there was little sentimentality from long-time denizen Lam Fu Kung, 56, who has owned a workshop fashioning wooden crates for logistics companies for 35 years.

Instead of sawdust, he is waiting for glittering stardust from developers to land. With a shrug, he says matter-of-factly: "Times have changed. My business and I are part of old Hong Kong."

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