Published May 29, 2010


Luxe and the city

TwoTwoSix, a bijou development in the heart of Sheung Wan, is creating a buzz ahead of its launch. By Daven Wu

WHEN the writer Han Suyin first arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, she found a city in metamorphosis. 'Never has a city torn and built itself with such ferocity,' she would later write. 'Nor has it stopped tearing and building through these (decades).' On this sea-wet rock, generations of entrepreneurs and property developers have built a Manhattan in the East; to the extent that, today, amid Hong Kong's crowded canyon of towering skyscrapers, a good view is increasingly hard to find. But as any New Yorker will tell you, the view may be breathtaking at the top, but if it's the city's pulse - its nightlife, its food and its energy - that you're looking to feel, then you need to be closer to the ground.

'TwoTwoSix is the antithesis of the typical development in Hong Kong which tends to be a cookie-cutter product both in terms of the architecture and the lifestyle proposition,' says Mr Lo. He fronts Blake's together with Darrin Woo (right) --

Which explains the buzz that's gathering in Hong Kong ahead of the year-end launch of TwoTwoSix, a bijou development in the heart of Sheung Wan. With just five apartments - one on each floor - the project is unusual in both its literal scale and the greater ambitions of its developer, Blake's. Fronted by Alan Lo, 30, and Darrin Woo, 33, Blake's is clearly a gamble. Hong Kong is, after all, a city of excesses, where big is good, and bigger is best. Its developers have traditionally only been interested in the highest yield per square foot which explains the monstrosities that stretch from Robinson Road to Tsingyi. But with an eye on a very select market of high net-worth hipsters ever since it was founded in 2007, Blake's is betting on the little guy.

The MO of TwoTwoSix is tantalising: to revitalise a piece of run down property while enhancing the character of the neighbourhood. Think of Meatpacking District, Haji Lane and Darlinghurst. In a city where, as one insider puts it, the property market runs on high-level testosterone stakes, such an approach requires a cohesive long-term vision; this may strike some as an idealistic notion, but for Mr Lo, an architectural graduate from Princeton, and Mr Woo, a town and country planning graduate from London's University College, it's a risk worth taking.

For starters, TwoTwoSix is set in a 1960s pile that is so typical of the area with street-level shops and residences above. But the developers quickly saw its potential as a test-bed for their idea of an entirely new lifestyle experience.

Says Mr Lo, 'In New York, London or Paris, walking the street is such a big part of the urban experience, but in the last couple of decades, Hong Kong has seen massive mixed-use developments with large retail podiums and seamless connectivity to our underground MTR system. This has effectively sucked away a lot of the street-level sociability, which we feel is so important to any city especially Hong Kong which has such an interesting history.'

In particular, Sheung Wan was picked for its 'cluster of 1960s architecture and lines of antique shops, galleries and neighbourhood cafes and restaurants that make its street level very pedestrian friendly. Over the past few years, the area has also emerged as a hub for creativity and the arts.'

For Hong Kong's investors, the Blake's brand of city-living for TwoTwoSix is a different proposition and opportunity from what they're used to. For instance, there is, for Hong Kong, an incredible amount of space. The first floor apartment is 1,280 sq ft with a 100 sq ft terrace; the next three floors are 1,450 sq ft each, while the penthouse clocks in at 1,450 sq ft with a 650 sq ft private garden. Prices have yet to be set, but you won't be too far off with HK$20,000 psf.

And just to drive home the point that this is not your typical Hong Kong development, Mr Lo and Mr Woo have recruited London-based design doyenne Ilse Crawford for her first Asian project. The semi open-planned apartments are filled with light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows that overlook Hollywood Park Road, while fittings include Bulthaup, Miele and Dornbracht.

'TwoTwoSix is the antithesis of the typical development in Hong Kong which tends to be a cookie-cutter product both in terms of the architecture and the lifestyle proposition,' says Mr Lo who is also a founder of the F&B Press Room Group. 'Our aim is to create five customised living spaces for the well-travelled, cultured individual who sees the neighbourhood as an extension of their private living room.

'One of the reasons we decided to restore the existing architecture instead of redeveloping a new one is we love Sheung Wan and we see the need to retain the scale of the neighbourhood and character of the area's architecture.' Though TwoTwoSix won't be complete till later this year, the pair is already looking at other sites, among them Happy Valley and Kowloon. They've also been collaborating with Singaporean hotelier Yenn Wong.

Says Mr Woo, 'She's just worked with Istanbul-based designers Autoban and opened 208 Duecento Otto, a restaurant and bar at 208 Hollywood Road, one of the street-level retail properties in our portfolio. Next door at 210 Hollywood Road, we've just brought on board Mandy D'Abo of Cat Street Gallery who will be creating a contemporary art space for larger installations and sculpture exhibits. The idea behind our street level retail strategy is to give the area that initial push by introducing quality and artisan tenants to 'set the tone' for the neighbourhood. So by end of the year, the Hollywood Road and Possession Street precinct will see some fairly interesting transformations!'

And if TwoTwoSix turns out to be the success that they hope, says Mr Woo, 'we hope to venture beyond Hong Kong to China within five years and to other cities in Asia within 10 years.' And in Singapore at least, they will be in good company. Luxury property developer Simon Cheong's SC Global is one of their favourite developers. 'We love the fact that he takes the time to understand each and every site and design specifically to the context of the neighbourhood. We also admire his efforts to constantly come up with new ideas for the urban lifestyle when most other developers are just cookie cutting what has worked for the past 20, 30 years.'

For Mr Lo and Mr Woo, these are interesting times, not least because they're ramping up a property business at a time when the nerves of the financial market are already so shredded. 'But we're not too overly concerned,' says Mr Woo. 'Our projects are quite small and not specifically catered to the mass market. After all we're talking about only five residences.' The comment might strike some as smacking of bravado, if not a little like whistling in the dark, but their quiet confidence is compelling. And so is their creative purpose and business objective. Says Mr Lo, 'What we're trying to focus on is smaller projects with a bit of human touch and soul; which is great for the city as these sites that we like are generally not what the big developers are interested in as it's too small.'

'They're visionaries,' says Ilse Crawford with characteristic simplicity. 'They're leading the way for a new class of developer.'

And in real estate-obsessed Hong Kong, that's a proposition worth keeping tabs on.

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