A new MTR line means the Western District will never be the same again. We explore this once traditional area as it rapidly comes of age. By TOHK staff. Photography by Calvin Sit.
The Western District is changing. That’s hardly news – since the first earth-shattering work started on the MTR’s new West Island Line in August 2009, residents have been preparing to witness the most radical and rapid changes ever seen from Sheung Wan to Kennedy Town. But what will this urban metamorphosis result in? We focus on some of the most pressing issues that will shape the future of the district for decades to come.
REAL ESTATE BOOM
The Western District property market is booming, and it’s no real surprise as to why. It neighbours Hong Kong’s business centre, possesses many of the island’s best schools, and will soon have a gleaming new MTR line.
According to data from property agency Midland Realty, the average price of the major residential estates in the district is up 10 to 37 per cent compared to the same time last year. And they’re not done yet. “The prices will keep rising,” said Sam Shum Hing-wo, manager of property agency Centaline. By 2014, when the West Island Line starts to operate, the overall property price in the district may rise another 20 to 30 per cent.
Prior to the announcement of the MTR, much of the Western District was considered old, with highly inconvenient transportation. “When people know a new metro line is reaching there, it’s a different story,” said Shum. The district has become a hotspot for big money developers to acquire old buildings and reap the rewards. Recently, new estates have poured into the district’s real estate market, pushing the overall property price even higher.
You could call this inflation of property prices the “MTR effect”. In 2009, after the Kowloon Southern Link was put into place, the time used to get to Tsim Sha Tsui from New Territories was shortened from 63 minutes to 38 minutes and, as a result, the prices of residential estates in New Territories immediately rose 10 to 30 per cent. Today, the property price in this district is rising faster than that of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Indeed, Western District real estate has already started a steep rise. For those on a tight budget, however, there are still options. In particular, Shum recommends Smithfield Terrace in Kennedy Town. As the only estate in the district which provides small flats (starting from 252 sq ft), its average price is still lower than other estates, and, best of all, one of the exits of the new MTR line is right on the doorstep. Shirley Zhao
Nothing drives change like a lean, mean people-moving machine. And indeed, the new West Island line, scheduled for completion by 2014, is the reason for the impending changes of the Western District.
With new stations at Sai Ying Pun, the University of Hong Kong and Kennedy Town, the MTR will serve a catchment population of 140,000, as well as bring 60,000 to and from the district for work. The new service will bring passengers from Kennedy Town to Sheung Wan, the new line’s terminus, in a mere eight minutes, and is expected to significantly reduce the much-maligned traffic congestion problems that exist from Pok Fu Lam through to Central. According to a statement from MTR Corp, “all commuters, whether using rail or not, will benefit either from the speedy service provided by the railway or from the less congested road network.”
“I think the whole connectivity will be improved. I think [MTR Corp] have done a very good job in terms of engaging the community and trying to listen to their viewpoints,” says Dr Mee Kam Ng, Academic Advisor to the HKIUD and an Associate Professor at HKU’s Department of Urban Planning and Design. “By the very installation of the MTR, there have been changes in how the linkages and accessibility and the permeability of the whole area will be changed.”
Indeed, the MTR is the jewel in the Western District’s new transport crown. But other infrastructure is also planned to provide better connectivity around the district. Covered pedestrian links, footbridges, and a mini-bus station at Kennedy Town are all in the works, as is Sai Ying Pun’s Centre Street escalator. Once completed in mid-2012, the Highways Department estimates the 85m-long covered escalator will serve more than 14,000 two-way journeys a day along the precariously steep street.
All of these infrastructure projects are largely positive, says Dr Ng, but with one colossal caveat. “It will be a good thing if its existence is just to enhance the existing urban fabric. But the problem is, with the coming of the MTR and its capacity to hold more people, it will trigger off redevelopment.”
The biggest concern is, unless controls are put in place, the MTR may spark off a wave of unchecked gentrification. Says Dr Ng: “This is a very good opportunity for us to enhance this area, but the negative is that we don’t have the proper mechanisms and culture, and social infrastructure, to preserve what we should preserve in the process of change.” Mark Tjhung
PRESERVING AND CONSERVING
Visiting the Western District area is akin to being caught in a time warp – Chinese medicine shops, rice traders (selling rice by the scoopful) and dried seafood shops can still be found nestled alongside a scattering of colonial municipal facilities.
Despite the significant heritage that oozes from the district, at present, only a handful of obvious landmarks like Western Market and the ghostly-looking former mental asylum Sai Ying Pun Community Complex have been deemed worthy of protecting. But Peter Li Siu Man of The Conservancy Association reminds us that the Western District is also home to many tong lau – low-rise terraces that have remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s, and populated by locals who have lived there for many decades. These old buildings are being aggressively acquired by luxury property developers who anticipate the area becoming the next ‘WoHo’. In the wake of the dismantling of cultural icons such as the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier in Central to make way for redevelopment, should we expect history to repeat itself in the Western District?
Margaret Brooke, chair of the Heritage Hong Kong Foundation, remains hopeful. From her knowledge, private organizations, both non-profit and corporate, have increasingly taken on the ethos of “sensitive regeneration” – preserving and building around what’s already there, as opposed to bulldozing through it. Her optimism however, is shadowed by the knowledge that the government conservation policy at present is not structured or equipped to protect all aspects of Hong Kong’s heritage. “The government assesses [heritage] on a ‘case-by-case’ basis,” she explains. “There is no such thing as conserving an entire district.”
According to HKU’s Dr Ng, it’s also limited in protective scope. “The problem is, if we’re talking about all these old tenement buildings, the thing that is valuable is invisible. The visible things are not very valuable. And Hong Kong is not very good at retaining this social fabric or local heritage.”
Li feels that successful conservation efforts must involve the community and grassroots participation. “We can’t rely on the government as they are very reactive,” he says. “We don’t restore buildings simply because they’re beautiful. There’s no point in doing so if there’s no one to appreciate them.” Tina Leung
ON THE WATERFRONT
At night, Kennedy Town’s Western District Public Cargo Working Area is bathed in glowing beams of warm yellow light. The seamen and dockers are long gone. Residents are jogging, biking, fishing, walking their dogs, or simply chatting – this 880m-long area lined with forklifts, stacked pipes, rusty containers and seedy make-shift sheds has turned into a public thoroughfare, with a view that takes in the glistening lights from West Kowloon and the Stonecutters Bridge.
This is a part of the Western District’s Victoria Harbour, and almost the only part of the 3km-long harbour that residents can get direct access to, with the segment surrounded by the Western Wholesale Food Market and a pedestrian-prohibited cargo area. “It’s a pity we only have this much,” says Kennedy Town resident Chow Kai-wing while doing Tai Chi at the end of the pier. “The sea here is really beautiful.”
Central and Western District councilor Tanya Chan Suk-chong, who is also a member of the Subcommittee on Harbourfront Planning, agrees. “Western District’s sea view is very different from Central’s,” she says. “Residents here are longing for a Western harbourfront connected with the Central one.”
In 2009, the Central and Western District Council (CWDC) proposed a design of the Western harbourfront together with social workers, local residents and urban planning and design students from Hong Kong University. The design recommended a harbourfront stretching from Sheung Wan to the west end of Kennedy Town, including a renewed Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park, a local food plaza, an on-board port development museum, a multi-cultural plaza, and a “sunset-gazing” park. There will also be a cycle path accompanying the harbourfront.
The CWDC also held a planning competition in 2010 to encourage more people to take part in the harbourfront planning.
“Residents in this district need more places to rest,” says Chan, “and a harbourfront can satisfy such a need and let them enjoy the changing sea views from Central to Western District.”
The government has promised citizens to proceed with the construction of waterfront promenades, and a special commission has been formed for planning, developing and improving the area. But so far it remains unplanned. “We haven’t had much progress,” admits Chan. “The project may remain a standstill in the foreseeable future.” Shirley Zhao