618 Shanghai Street :

An Urban Conservation Toolkit – A Revitalisation Project of the Urban Renewal Authority

市區重建局的活化項目 : 618上海街

Lawrence Mak 麥中傑

本文探討了市區重建局(市建局)618上海街項目的設計和保育方法。通過對新與舊建築元素的運用,同時保留歷史傳統、文化和地區特色,與居民生活和社區未來發展需要,融入到活化建築之內,讓更新後的項目能與社群重新建立關係。為了激活城市肌理,保護該地區現有的歷史建築群,市建局全資負擔了該項目的所有費用;但要令香港的保育項目財政上較可行,需要積極的規劃政策,通過私人市場參與可有利建築保育發展; 然而,保育建築需要一種「工具包」 方法來處理各種尺度和不同情況的項目。

The article considers how the design and conservation approach adopted by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) for 618 Shanghai Street offers a toolkit for dealing with the complexities of managing conservation and renewal in Hong Kong.

Project background
Tong Lau as an architectural type in Hong Kong’s urban context has long been considered a common and relatively abundant species of pre-war residential buildings, especially in old urban districts with a grid pattern such as Yau Ma Tei or Mong Kok. However, piecemeal private urban renewal projects and a lack of overall urban design and conservation processes has led to many of these private residential buildings being redeveloped as discrete residential or commercial towers. As a result, urban areas connected by pavements and sheltered by continuous shop house verandahs have become scarce.

A conservation study of urban areas conducted by the Urban Renewal Authority in 2000 found of 1,440 pre-war buildings only two continuous clusters of shophouses remained intact: 600-626 Shanghai Street and 190-204 and 210-212 Prince Edward Road West. Despite being designated Grade 2 Historical Buildings by the Antiquities Advisory Board, they were not legally protected from being torn down for redevelopment.

To protect these two clusters from being redeveloped, the Urban Renewal Authority launched two projects in 2009 aimed at protecting them. Via a Development Scheme Plan issued under the URA Ordinance it rezoned them into “OU (Historic Buildings Preserved for Commerical and/ or Cultural uses)”.

The Shanghai Street site stands the heart of Mong Kok, opposite Langham Place from Argyle Street, near Mong Kok MTR Station. It comprises 14 lots of low-rise residential buildings, ten of which were pre-war buildings and the rest residential buildings built in the 1960s, separating three pre-war clusters. Character-defining elements: A detailed conservation study was conducted for the project.

Character-defining elements included the Shanghai Street façade and verandah, and various building components including authentic timber doors and coloured and patterned cement tiles. The plan also outlined conservation guidelines for the execution of the scheme.

Conservation and design strategies for 618 Shanghai Street

Various degrees of intervention were considered throughout the development of the scheme, especially for the remaining pre-war portions. Due to the requirement to retain the front façade and verandah and the external envelope of the pair of shophouses at 624-626 Shanghai Street, but also having to take into account the poor condition of their 80-plus-year-old concrete frame structure, the adopted scheme opted for a new structure to replace the rear portion of the buildings, except at 624-626 Shanghai Street, for which the entire envelope was retained. It was also decided to redevelop the two post-war buildings between the cluster.

To distinguish the new from the old, the language of the redeveloped portions uses a minimalist modern language, accommodating most of the new vertical building services required, such as a lift shaft, various MOE staircases and fire services tanks. To handle the continuity of the extended verandah along Shanghai Street, the Buildings Department granted a modification allowing for extended projections at the redeveloped post-war clusters to act as a shading device and maintaining the cluster’s horizontal lines.

Efforts were made to retain and continue the original character of the façade by taking into consideration into various existing features, including the different concrete grills, motifs and signage added during the life of the cluster. The colour scheme was also carefully considered, with different colours used for different lots. New-found architectural details were also preserved and showcased, adding layers and meaning to the cluster’s different eras.

Despite the evolution of blocks in the area and the redevelopment of uniform pre-war shop-house clusters into discrete high-rise buildings, the project has retained the height profile of the cluster as it was at its commencement.

As a project fronting two streets, different treatments were carried out for the front and rear elevations. On the Shanghai Street side, the location of the main façade and the most important conservation elements, care was taken to ensure the preservation of historical fabrics in accordance with the requirements of the AMO. New components were added in a contrasting modern language to distinguish between the new and the old.

The Hong Lok Street side, a second elevation rather than a back street, was treated as equally important for the project. Seen as a piece of the jigsaw of Mong Kok’s urban fabric, it was originally the back end of the cluster, used through the years by shops selling building materials for loading, unloading and illegal parking. Now, it has been given a new role as a second frontage. While maintaining the subdivision of the lots into separate units, the Hong Lok Street elevation has become a device for activating vibrancy by providing shop fronts conducive to a pedestrianized environment. Among its possible outlets are cafés and “grab and go” food shops. How the transformed street is eventually used will depend on the response of the community and local commerce.

Other toolkits in the URA’s conservation tool box An example for transformation and restructuring for larger projects involving several street blocks is the Lee Tung Street project (Site A) covering several blocks between Johnston Road and Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai. This scheme integrated open space systems and pedestrian circulation in both east-west and north-south directions as well as providing linkage to Wan Chai MTR station.

Conservation of Grade 3 Historical Buildings at 186-190 Queen’s Road East was realized through the preservation of the majority of its 1930s concrete structure. Provisions for required services such as fire escapes and various E&M functions were made possible through a podium at the back of the scheme. This allowed the preserved building to be maintained largely intact.

In contrast, the Prince Edward Road West (PERW) project, another Grade 2 Historic Building cluster, being far smaller in scale, required a very different strategy. Started at the same time as the 618 Shanghai Street scheme in 2009, it was originally planned to use the same strategy as 618 Shanghai Street through the use of an annex at the rear that would comply with current building regulations. However, due to being in much better structural condition and with a mainly middle class/commercial ownership profile, the need to improve living conditions was not as urgent as at 618 Shanghai Street. Located in Prince Edward’s flower market, most of the cluster’s ground-floor units sold flower-related goods, while many upper floors had been converted for various uses such as dance and hobby studios or tuition classrooms, making it a popular place with the local community.

Given this stronger local context need and the lesser urgency to vacate to improve the living environment, the URA made conservation of the buildings its initial goal. Rather than acquiring the entire cluster, it adopted a lighter, “minor works” approach that took advantage of the better condition of the buildings. Work was conducted in three phases to minimize disturbance to the community and operation of the flower market.

Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok have long had little active private-sector urban renewal, mainly due to lacking residual plot ratios under the current Outline Zoning Plan. As a result, only some 53 occupation permits have been granted in the last 20 years. Realizing better upkeep and conservation of the urban fabric and existing historical building stock in these areas needs positive financial incentives if participation from the private market is to have a role. This will require corresponding planning policies such as the transfer of plot ratio to enhance feasibilitiy of conservation projects by making use of the unexpended plot ratio of historical building sites to render conserving these buildings financially viable. At the same time, “toolkits” which can handle the various scales and sensitivities are also necessary. The experience of the Urban Renewal Authority in handling projects can be shared as possible options for the process of urban transformation.


Lawrence Mak is General Manager of URA.

618 Shanghai Street front facade. (Credit URA)

618 Shanghai Street elevation, before and after. (Credit URA)

618 Shanghani, cut-away isometric showing overall layout.

Renovated roofscape with new services tower (Credit URA)

Restored columns of shop houses (Credit URA)

Renovated deep verandah showing new and old. (Credit Lu Tang Lai Architects)