Hong Kong has just finished taking bids for the first commercial site to be auctioned off in Central in the last 20 years, and the land sale could bring in as much as HK$18.6 billion ($2.4 billion) for the city’s treasury when its concluded in May, according to analyst’s estimates.
While the funds from the sale of the 450,996 square foot (41,899 square metre) parking garage site on Murray Road are ear-marked to help improve infrastructure, could there be further opportunities to contribute to Hong Kong’s development in ways that could produce much more value to the city? That’s a yes, according to architects and urban designers from global design firm Benoy.
To find out more about how Hong Kong might use its government land auctions to help improve the quality of life in the bustling Asian hub, and help the city keep pace with its competitors in the region, Mingtiandi spoke with Trevor Vivian, a global director at Benoy, and Simon Bee, managing director of global design at the firm, to find out more about how human-centred design can improve returns for developers, the city and its citizens.
Mingtiandi: Hong Kong could bring in HK$18.6 billion from the site on Murray Road. That’s a lot of revenue for a former parking garage, but are there potential benefits to the city that might be missed in this land auction?
Trevor Vivian: The current land sales process in Hong Kong is run by public auction and a tender process which makes the maximum purchase price the only driver behind the sale of these sites. One of the missed opportunities for this process is that the highest bid doesn’t necessarily come with the best design.
Mingtiandi: Selling things to the highest bidder is a time-honored Hong Kong tradition. Are other cities in the world using different considerations when deciding how to develop land?
Trevor Vivian: In other cities, in Europe, Asia and the Americas, proposals to develop a site are judged on the quality of their design first, and then tender bid – it’s called the ‘two envelope’ bid. The way that a project, over what could be a lifetime of 50 years or more, manages wider issues relating to the city’s and community’s needs becomes as important as the initial payment. Issues including livability, sustainability and provision for the public realm are figured into these selection processes, rather than just looking at one-off cash transactions.
Moving to a two envelope bid also helps to attract interest from the international market, and welcoming international ideas can only be seen as positively contributing to Hong Kong’s position as a global city.
Mingtiandi: With a developer agreeing to pay such a high sum for a 450,996 square foot site, they will need to go as vertical as possible and to build as many square feet of leasable area as they can. Is this the best way to develop Central?
Trevor Vivian: Currently the planning regulations in Hong Kong encourage developers to maximise their leasable GFA, making this a main driver behind the design. We believe there is a great opportunity for Hong Kong to evolve its planning strategy to introduce new thinking.
In Singapore, for example, we see the government incentivising developers to introduce public amenity and green space through their ‘LUSH’ principles, established to encourage the adoption of skyrise greenery in Singapore’s new buildings.
The rules essentially promote two very important ideas: landscape replacement and GFA exemption for green, civic spaces. In practice, the amenity value created by such spaces has meant that, in Singapore, many developers far exceed the minimum landscaping requirements in their developments.
We would like to see more opportunities to similarly ‘humanise’ the buildings which are being developed across Hong Kong and recognise these schemes as valuable contributions to the wider urban environment, beyond their value as commercial landmarks.
Mingtiandi: How might a new and taller development on this site also help to make Central more livable?
Simon Bee: Given the significance and rarity of a site like this, Hong Kong should be considering how a pioneering new building typology can create “lifestyle value” to attract companies who are keen to be based in new forms of workspace, and give their employees a fantastic and productive environment which will help to attract the best talent.
This might mean combining Grade A office space with a complementary blend of attractive and convenient facilities – to create a truly mixed-use piece of vertical cityscape. Combine this with an enlightened approach to urban design and public realm that properly connects with its surroundings, and we begin to imagine this site as an exciting catalyst for developing the next great urban hub in Central, Hong Kong.
Mingtiandi: But with a developer agreeing to pay HK$40,000 per square foot for the site, can anyone afford to think beyond maximizing their return on investment?
Simon Bee: Maximising floor space will inevitably be a prime consideration to make the business case stack up. However, even in Central where density and prices are sky high, we can imagine an alternative scenario where developers could be encouraged to give over a proportion of space to the provision of open plazas and landscaped break-out spaces, at various locations and levels in the building. The potential for accommodating a greater range of retail, convenience, leisure and even cultural facilities within the mix should also be part of the equation.
Supertall designs globally are creating vertical cities that integrate amenity spaces throughout the building, not just in a lower podium. There are opportunities to splice in shops, restaurants, banks and convenience clusters every 20 floors or so with amenity spaces, gardens and lounges that connect to outside terraces.
Mingtiandi: Benoy ran a contest last year to showcase new thinking for Hong Kong’s future high rise buildings. Did you learn anything from that exercise that might be applied to the Murray Road site?
Simon Bee: The Sky Spaces competition we ran last year for Benoy designers looked at exactly this scenario – how could Hong Kong begin to embrace a more human, landscaped and mixed-use environment within its landscape of tall towers? We examined a Hong Kong site in Kowloon Bay and applied some of the planning rules which exist in Singapore, to actively promote the introduction of public realm and green spaces (combined with a dusting of other uses) to make the whole experience of high-rise working more sustainable.
This meant gently relaxing height constraints and rules on site coverage, so that spaces and places could be inserted without huge detriment to the overall amount of lettable space. What emerged was a range of unique solutions, each with the ability to add new amenity value, adding to the overall attractiveness of the development for the city, the building occupants and visitors alike.
Mingtiandi: With cities like Singapore and Shanghai guiding the way that their cities are developing to ensure competitiveness, is Hong Kong in danger of losing its title as Asia’s world city?
Trevor Vivian: Hong Kong is a great city and as designers we can’t help but be excited by the unique opportunities that a city like this presents to us – from the extreme density to the beautiful and extensive harbourfront and coastline. All cities need to keep developing and evolving, it’s a reality of the modern world as populations grow and land becomes increasingly scarce. The challenge is how we advance our thinking on urban intervention to help shape our cities for the future; this is the conversation we are looking to explore in Hong Kong.
Alternative Ideas for Hong Kong
This sponsored feature was contributed by Benoy.