Hopewell Holdings continues to play fast and loose with the Town Planning Board in an effort to expand its massive Hopewell Centre II development in Wan Chai. It has recently withdrawn its application from the Town Planning Board (TPB) for what it misleadingly calls “minor refinements and enhancements” to a plan that was approved in 2009.
The withdrawal comes after asking the TPB for a deferral on three occasions this year. This means that Hopewell has shied away from allowing the TPB to make a decision on its proposals. It is almost unheard of for the TPB to allow an applicant to have three deferrals. Another deferral would have shattered the credibility of the TPB and Planning Department which is already looking rather threadbare over this issue.
Hopewell played the same game last year when after submitting an application to the TPB in June. The plan was withdrawn and a new application submitted in November. All of these deferrals suggest that Hopewell is encountering difficulties in getting approval from the government.
The way these things work is that the developer operates behind the scenes with the planning and other government departments, until it gets an indication that the government is happy with the scheme. The application is then formally considered by the TPB and the Planning Department provides a recommendation to “guide” the board. That said, it seems to be the case that the Planning Department is only stirred into action when there is a public outcry at a proposal. In the absence of this, the proposal is allowed to slip through quietly through the TPB with its blessing.
Although Hopewell has withdrawn its application, objectors are not letting their guard down–since they know it won’t be long before it submits another application and the whole process starts again.
Hopewell is making a mockery of the planning process and is being allowed to do so by the TPB. Every one of Hopewell’s deferrals has been accompanied by a portentous statement from the TPB: “The Committee… agreed to advise the applicant that that one month was allowed for preparation of the submission of the further information, and no further deferment would be granted unless under very special circumstances.”
It is hard to discern “the very special circumstances” referred to here other than a big influential property developer wants to get his proposal through the TPB. Hopewell’s tactics amount to little more than a rolling fishing exercise in which it is testing the planning authorities to see how far it can go and what it can get away with. Every time Hopewell meets resistance from the planning authorities it backs off as the last thing it wants is for its supplication to be rejected by the TPB.
Retired High Court Judge William Waung observed last year in a letter of objection to the TPB, that Hopewell’s approach was a “vexatious abuse of process.” He criticised Hopewell’s tactics as “the salami slice approach to planning. You get what you want one piece at a time.” He argued in his letter that Hopewell should not be allowed to keep on resubmitting plans similar to ones which the TPB has already rejected. He maintains that given the time and cost involved in the board’s applications by government departments and the public, successive applications by the same developer should be rejected unless there was an exceptional change in circumstances.
In 2004, Hopewell applied to build a 93-storey hotel with convention and exhibition facilities, which was rejected by the board, then again when it was reviewed. A subsequent appeal was withdrawn in 2008 when a deal over a scaled-down project was hammered out with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was the then development secretary. This compromise scheme was approved by the board in 2009. However, to the dismay of residents, Hopewell is now trying to reinsert the bits of the plan it lost under the Lam deal.
Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, the chairman of Hopewell, agreed in 2008 to reduce the size of the 93-storey hotel he was proposing to 55 storeys in exchange for a land swap agreement. He also dropped the massive “wall block” design of the building in favour of a “Y-shaped” building and scrapped the significant facilities he had proposed.
Kennedy Road residents, led by the Kenned Road Protection Group, fought his plans for more than 10 years because access to this monster development was to be through Kennedy Road.
At various stages before 2004, Hopewell had sought permission from the Town Planning Board for convention and exhibition facilities but the board rejected them. One of the reasons was that Kennedy Road is a residential area and is not suited to the surge in traffic that would accompany the facilities. The Transport Department also opposed it for this reason.
Hopewell’s application for “minor refinements and enhancements” includes a massive podium with a large 1,500-seat convention theatre together with 50,000 square feet of additional facilities. These are the very facilities that were strenuously opposed by residents and rejected by the TPB in 2004 and 2005. Opponents to the scheme argue that rather than building a hotel with convention and exhibition facilities, Hopewell is building a convention and exhibition centre with a hotel attached. The distinction is important. Under the terms of the Comprehensive Redevelopment Area in which this project falls, convention and exhibition facilities are not allowed.
They argue that if Hopewell wants a convention centre, it should make a rezoning application for a convention and exhibition centre, which is a much longer process. Indeed, many are wondering why the board has not made Hopewell do this. The proposed hotel is already the biggest in town and approaches the size of some of Macau’s casino convention centres.