GBA Lifestyle News
By Kate Springer | May 27th, 2016

Property developers in Hong Kong often get a bad rap, but they’re not all evil. Alex Bent and Dinesh Nihalchand, the developers behind District15, say property development can be done in a sustainable way. Bent tells The Loop why he thinks more property developers should respect the neighbors, keep heritage alive and clean up their carbon footprints.

A little background

Bent and Nihalchand grew up in Hong Kong, both leaving to study in the US and returning after a few years at corporate jobs. They got into property development right after SARS, when the market was at a low point. They started by buying small apartments, renovating them and leasing them to young professionals or selling them to earn capital. Later, they co-founded Kush, a luxury boutique serviced apartment brand, and opened what’s now the Ovolo on Hollywood Road.

More recently they’ve been running District 15, a boutique development agency that is launching Tribute Hotel in Yau Ma Tei, as well as a small lifestyle development called Warehouses on West that aims to usher in artistic clients, cafes and plots for urban gardening. They also have another project in the works in Shek Tong Tsui, named Yat Fu Lane after the street it’s on, which the duo hopes will become like Tai Ping Shan Street.

5 things you should know, according to Bent

1. It’s important to respect the neighborhood

Design is a very subjective thing, so I might like this table and you might not. I think that our approach is to pay tribute to the neighborhood we’re in and the surrounding environment, so a lot of our stuff is really minimal. We prefer to blend into the surroundings.

For example, in our latest development on Yat Fu Lane, we are cutting off a little area called “Hawker” to pay tribute to how Hong Kong has formed. A lot of Hong Kong people came from Shanghai or elsewhere in China and started their own businesses. That’s our subtle way of paying tribute to the area and its history.

We’re constantly working with local artists, craftsmen, designers — people often look at Hong Kong as this big financial city and they don’t realize there’s a lot of creativity here. And I think real estate provides a platform for these artisans and craftsmen. We look for the best people, but we often find that they’re right there.

2. Development is inevitable

When I was younger, my mother always looked at developers as big, bad, ugly. And I suppose that Dinesh [Nihalchand] and I have tried to enter this business with a conscience. So when we enter a neighborhood, we try to blend in and hopefully have a positive impact.

But having said that, we do get some flack sometimes when people say we are contributing to [gentrification]. I think development is an inevitable fact of life — whether it’s properties or technology or businesses. Elon Musk is changing the way we drive our cars and heat our apartments. You could argue that his innovations take jobs away from the oil industry, but we can’t stand still.

If I look at Hong Kong 20 years ago, since I grew up here, I find it to be a much more interesting place today than it was back then. That’s because there are neighborhoods now — you never could have gone around Hong Kong Island to Shek Tong Tsui or Sai Ying Pun to find little areas to enjoy. There was nothing out east in North Point. I think there are always going to be people who lose out in any kind of progress, but ultimately everyone is going to benefit if it’s done in a socially conscious way. 

3. Developers have a responsibility to the community

The way the planet is changing, and you look at Hong Kong and we have a bit of a pollution problem, the people who have the largest carbon footprints should give back somehow and try to offset that. And those people tend to be developers. We all have a moral and social obligation to do something.

We met with a company called Rooftop Republic yesterday [read The Loop’s interview here], and they’re super nice people doing things with Cathay Pacific, Swire, and a lot of big companies. A lot of these corporations realize that with some of the unused real estate, like roofs, there’s an opportunity to do some urban farming. It is very environmentally friendly, not only because you’re maximizing space but you’re also shrinking the distance between where the vegetable grows and your table, reducing the carbon footprint.

4. Renovating properties keeps some heritage alive

We’re not necessarily against tearing down properties and rebuilding, but if we can retrofit existing properties instead then we like to do that. The reason for that is that sometimes old properties have great bones — building regulations change all the time, so maybe 20 years ago you could get away with high ceilings but you couldn’t today. 

I’m the first to say that Hong Kong hasn’t done a great job of sort of preserving a lot of its really nice old buildings. If you look at Singapore, for example, I think they’ve done a better job of that. The problem again, though, is that Hong Kong is incredibly dense. We don’t have a lot of land, so sometimes the government and developers don’t always have a choice. 

But I’m a lover of history so I think all of those older buildings give places a sense of the past. And I think that’s important in any culture, in any city. And from a design perspective, they add another layer of color on top of the landscape. If we knock down every building and rebuild, chances are the way building regulations are set up on that particular day, everything would look the same.

5. Government restrictions limit innovation

Being a developer is actually very, very difficult. And being a small developer is even more difficult. We are converting a hotel in Yau Ma Tei [Tribute Hotel]. We took a commercial building and we’re converting it into a hotel. The government very correctly has put in guidelines to ensure developers put in certain services, fire provisions, and whatnot to make sure the building is safe and inhabitable.

I think the problem is that sometimes those regulations verge on the ridiculous and ludicrous. Not only does the building take far too long, but your costs go up massively, and this idea of people being able to innovate is often curtailed.

There have been so many times when people come and say ‘Why don’t you do this,’ or ‘Why don’t you convert that?’ The simple answer is that it either cannot be converted, it takes too much time, or the government doesn’t have a channel for you to innovate in that way. It’s not easy to work outside of the existing system with new ideas. So that’s something that the government could really improve on.

And looking toward the future?

I hope there are more companies like us. If you look around New York, the US, the UK, there are a lot of creative smaller developers. Hong Kong is a small market dominated by a few developers so it’s difficult to break into, and the barrier to entry is high.

Hong Kong would benefit a lot from having more small developers. If you find a few developers with a conscience who want to open up a neighborhood but keep the locality intact, then that’s a good thing.

A neighborhood shouldn’t develop overnight. One neighborhood that I don’t like at all is Soho. That’s a complete disaster, as a result of overdevelopment with no concern for the surrounds. If you get sustainable development over a few years, then you can get that variation. Tai Ping Shan is a great example, which has a lot of little businesses, creative types and entrepreneurs due to the nature of the real estate, which is a bunch of small shops.

You can keep traditions alive by exhibiting them or embracing them in design. There’s always going to be critics, no matter what business you’re in. But if you really believe in what you’re doing and you’re not trying to hurt anyone, and you’re doing it with the best of intentions that’s all you can really ask for.