Friday 22 May 2009

Alfresco Dining in Public Spaces To Be Axed. Why?

In their vengeance, overzealous District Council members have decided to ban all restaurants in Central and Western (which includes SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong) from using or renting public spaces as dining areas. This will have a negative impact on the area’s alfresco dining atmosphere.

This is yet another “HK Red Tape Moment” that makes you sigh and shake your head. The Central and Western District Council's decision is based on their apparent resentment that rent money was being paid direct to the Lands Department, without the council’s initial knowledge. In fact, anyone can approach the Lands Department and request to use government-owned land, and this is sometimes allowed in return for a rental fee. There is little wrong with that practice.

The problem lies with lack of communication between government departments and district councils. Each has its own jurisdiction and powers that can sometimes be at odds with each other. I suspect the chairman of the council's committee, Chan Hok-fung, and his cronies, suffered a “loss of face” when they discovered Gaia Ristorante in Grand Millennium Plaza was giving rent to the Lands Department (supposedly behind their backs), and therefore used their position to settle scores.

Chan uses the excuse that “restaurants should not be allowed to profit from occupying public space”. So what will Chan and his cronies do instead? Will he rely on limited government coffers to provide public benches, which are clearly needed in Grand Millennium Plaza? Unlikely. Or will he keep public spaces bland, featureless and unusable? Likely.

Reference (SCMP)

Alfresco dining in public spaces across Central and Western off the menu from July

Olga Wong
May 21, 2009

All outdoor dining areas on public open space in Central and Sheung Wan are to be closed from July after a row erupted this year.

The first restaurant affected is Gaia Ristorante in the Grand Millennium Plaza. The Italian restaurant has rented a portion of the plaza for outdoor dining since 2004. Restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong could also be affected.

The Central and Western District Council's decision was criticised yesterday by diners and an academic, who said the move was irrational and would affect the area's vibrancy.

The council will hold an objection hearing today for the restaurant. The council's food, environment, hygiene and works committee decided to ban commercial activities on public open space after the Times Square saga, in which the developer was found to have profited from leasing the piazza for commercial activities without approval while limiting public access.

Although Gaia has been paying the Lands Department an annual fee of about HK$180,000 for operating on the plaza - and the outdoor facility covers only 40 square metres, about 5 per cent of the plaza's area - the department informed the restaurant last month that its licence for outdoor dining would end on July 15.

The chairman of the council's committee, Chan Hok-fung, said restaurants should not be allowed to profit from occupying public space. "If we approve the case of the Italian restaurant, should we allow other restaurants as well?" he said.

A spokesman for the restaurant said its outdoor facility had become a public gathering place.

"We encourage the public to use our outdoor tables and chairs freely before the restaurant opens at noon and we beautify the plaza with greening," he said. "The decision will force us to lay off some waiters serving customers sitting outdoors."

Mr Ngan, a man in his 60s who sits outside the restaurant every morning, said: "Why close it down? The restaurant sometimes offers us drinks."

A Mrs Cheung, 70, said it was a good place to meet old friends. "Where do we sit if they take away all the tables and chairs?"

Ng Mee-kam, associated professor of urban planning at the University of Hong Kong, said she could not believe the decision, remarking that "the council is taking a step backward".

She said cities in Europe have been introducing commercial elements into open gardens to foster community spirit.

Lawmaker Patrick Lau Sau-shing urged the government to provide district councils with guidelines over the use of public open space. He also suggested using fees paid by restaurants to improve the design of local open space.

"The alfresco dining is an attraction to tourists and residents," he said. "The council should conduct a proper public consultation before making such a decision."

Gaia Ristorante's outdoor dining area which is clearly being used by the public.
Photo: Oliver Tsang

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