[SCMP Column] HK's Iconic Waterfront

December 10, 2017

For as long as I have known Hong Kong, I have heard the same old joke: “It will be great when it is finished.”

The joke erupted, sudden and unwelcome, as I was being briefed last week on “Site 3”, which seems soon likely to be put out for tender.

For those who may have forgotten, Site 3 is the 157,000 sq m “groundscraper” portion of the 8-site Central Waterfront Development Plan. It will consume the General Post Office and stretch alongside IFC2 up to the ferry piers. In theory, it does not engulf the lonely ferris wheel sitting lifelessly by Pier 9, but it comes close.

As the briefing unfolded, the joke erupted, and morphed painfully into not a joke, fuelled first by a fearful imagining that this huge and iconic site might never be finished – not in my lifetime at least – and second that unless our leaders become uncharacteristically inspired, it may end up not being great either.

The importance of this site simply cannot be underestimated. By 2050, what is being created today on Site 3 will define how the world perceives Hong Kong. It will be on postage stamps, and will provide the backdrop to international TV broadcasters as they talk to the world about Hong Kong. Whether Hong Kong stands out as “Asia’s World City” or by then is just another Asian or Chinese city, will be determined in what we create.

As Donald Tsang, then our Chief Executive, said in his 2008 Policy Address, this project is “Imbued with cultural and historical significance, Victoria Harbour is an icon of our city. All Hong Kong people cherish it as our precious asset. I hope that our beautiful harbour will remain a symbol of our city that can be enjoyed by all.”

As I ponder this awesome thought, red lights begin to flash. Recall how ham-fistedly our administration has managed similar mega-projects – the 40 ha West Kowloon Cultural District, the 320 ha Kai Tak redevelopment, for example.
Recall the delays and the cost over-runs of projects like the Zhuhai bridge, the West Kowloon high speed railway station, or the Shatin-Central line.

Recall the visionary Norman Foster plans for a glass-canopied wonderland in West Kowloon which crumbled before our eyes, to be replaced by… heaven knows what.

When you think of it, Hong Kong seems to have lost its art of finishing projects on time and on budget – and complying with the original vision – since 1998 when it completed the airport project that embraced Chek Lap Kok, the Airport Express, a set of magnificent bridges and the in-town check-in.

Then ponder the temptations to compromise on the Central Harbourfront vision: developers are licking their lips at getting their hands on one of the most iconic sites available worldwide. Government and legislators are salivating at the prospect of land premiums at auction that could add HK$60-70bn to government coffers.

When these seductive monetary forces begin to flow, what chance then that the unique and iconic importance of making best use of Site 3 will hold firm? Who in government will stand firm alongside Nick Brooke, the Chairman of our Harbourfront Commission, insisting: “The harbour is the ‘jewel in the crown’ for Hong Kong and transcends the past, the present and the future. It is important to treat this endowment with care.”?

Remember, only recently Carrie Lam killed the plan to convert the toothless advisory Harbourfront Commission into a Harbourfront Authority that would have the teeth needed to stand up for, and enforce the vision.

Who will stand firm on the principles laid out by Aedas in its 2011 “Urban Design Study for the New Central Harbourfront”, drafted for the Planning Department, for this development to be “remarkable for its civic, historic and cultural significance, (creating) a world class waterfront for the enjoyment of our residents and visitors… vibrant, green and accessible.”

By 2016, as government officials plunged into final stages of consultation and tweaking of plans, they talked of Site 3 to be used “for comprehensive development mainly for office and retail commercial uses. It would provide a maximum commercial gross floor area of 150,000 m2, together with the provision of a landscaped pedestrian deck, public open space and other supporting facilities.”

Stripped to these bare bidding requirements, the danger seems clear that there is huge potential for slippage between the original and widely supported vision of a waterfront development that sends a powerful positive message to the world, and of another Blackpool waterfront.

I suspect that part of my gloomy skepticism over the plight of Site 3 has something to do with the seemingly interminable time that is being taken to build the kind of infrastructure that will set Hong Kong apart as a city for the 21st century.
After all, the plans for the development of the Harbour Waterfront were first discussed in 1985. Here we are three decades later, and we are still looking at glossy architects’ prototypes. Even if, as expected, developers are invited to tender early next year, we are looking at a development will unlikely be finished this side of 2030. And this is just Site 3 of a development that comprises eight site areas, some of which are still not off the plan. And don’t I remember somewhere that no sooner will the Site be finished than it will need to be dug up again for work on the long-delayed North Island MTR line?

In the meanwhile, recalling the dreadful waterfront turmoil that has marked the past two decades of development from Tamar to the Eastern Island Corridor, this implies continuous waterfront dislocation for over 30 years. I have only in the past year been able to stretch my legs on the waterfront alongside the new Government Offices and the Tamar army barracks – and it seems now we must brace for yet more decades of waiting.

Many of those who have spent a lifetime campaigning for a Victoria Harbour that we can be proud of will be dead or infirm before we ever see it complete. If it is ever to be finished, then please make sure it is great.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.
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