Hong Kong never knows what to do with the harbor. Despite being the most valuable asset and undoubtedly an icon of the city, Victoria Harbour has always been given a different treatment by the government at any given time—we used to try filling it up as much as we could, then we kind of stopped, then we started again for a road. We are now officially entering a new phase of our waterfront development with the recent opening of Lung Wo Road— formerly known as the P2 Road, the controversial road connected to the Central-Wan Chai Bypass—plus last month’s closure of the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee, the government’s advisory body on the harbor front development.
Without a proper harbor policy, or a master plan on waterfront development, what kind of waterfront are we really getting? For years, the government’s approach has been more about slogans and less about the unifications of plans. In last year’s policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang called for a need to “beautify the harbor front” and said he had delegated the Development Bureau to set up a Harbour Unit to “co-ordinate and plan harbor front enhancement initiatives.” One year later, we think it is now a good time to examine the ongoing waterfront development to find out how different the approaches are—some are promising while others are hindered by bureaucracy as usual—and determine if this is, at the end of the day, giving our city a better waterfront.
By far the source of the most controversies, Central’s waterfront has gone through a decade of turmoil. The demolition of the 55-year-old Star Ferry pier in Central in 2007 triggered the city’s embrace of our heritage, and the government’s change in policies—as well as a change of principal officials—to better adapt with the public’s new urge to conserve. After that, Queen’s Pier, right next to the Star Ferry pier, was also removed—all of this was because of the construction of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, a major transport link the government persuaded the public was necessary for the future development of Hong Kong. The bypass also required major reclamation in Central, which the government proved had “overriding public interest,” and would be the last reclamation in the harbor. The bypass will be in the form of a tunnel, whereas its linkage road, the newly opened Lung Wo Road, cuts across the waterfront and is six lanes wide.
After much debate over the years, the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee has reached a consensus regarding the development density. They will lower the density to improve the views of the harbor from inland, with a large landscaped deck connecting the Central Business District to the new harbor front. Secretary for Development Carrie Lam announced last year that the government will not relocate Queen’s Pier to its original location after the bypass is completed. Currently there are still two proposals on hand for the waterfront and there has been no decision on which to adopt yet. In his latest policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang has included the development of the Central waterfront as part of his initiative to conserve Central, the city’s very first attempt to conserve not just single buildings, but an area.
The North Point waterfront is up for grabs—we are not kidding. But before we go into that, let’s have a quick geography lesson. Despite its location on the north of the island, North Point residents never really enjoyed the waterfront—the Island Eastern Corridor has blocked residents from going near the water, and only those living in waterfront developments, namely Cheung Kong’s Provident and City Gardens, can see the harbor. However these two developments are classic walled-building developments (a total of 31 blocks with 25 to 27 stories), blocking the airflow to the rest of North Point. Ms. Cheung, who has been running a newspaper stand for more than 20 years there, experiences the pollution firsthand and has developed allergy symptoms because of it. “We’re trapped between the walled buildings, but the breeze from the harbor front and the mountains can’t reach us,” she says. Eastern District Council chairwoman Christina Ting Yuk-chee adds, “Residents have been complaining to us for years but it’s not like we can tear down the buildings to start our urban planning all over again.”
With the demolition of North Point Estate (near Java Road) seven years ago and the fact the former Government Supplies Department building in Oil Street has been empty since 1998, suddenly there are two pieces of premium waterfront land available in North Point. So far the government has not had any success in developing either of them. At Java Road, the former North Point Estate site is now a 37,000-square-foot plot of land. There have been plenty of hiccups. In 2002, the Housing Authority, which managed North Point Estate and the land under it after the estate was demolished, announced plans to give it back to the government, on the condition that the government would sell the land and allow for 3,430 residential flats to be built on the location (with a plot ratio of 10). Unsurprisingly, the plan for more walled buildings was widely criticized by local residents. In 2007, the Housing Authority scrapped the plan and returned the land to the government unconditionally.
Last year, the Planning Department submitted a new plan to the Town Planning Board. Instead of following the old model of building more high-rises for maximum profit, it responded to the public’s concern by cutting the plot ratio from 10 to 4—a large decrease in floor area that would minimize the walled building effect. It also meant a sharp decrease in the value of the land from $300 million to just $180 million. Only 65 percent of the total land would be used for development, while the rest would be left for a large public open space and a 20-meter long waterfront promenade. Clearly this contradicts the government’s usual approach. For decades, development on both sides of Victoria Harbour has been determined by whether the planning would maximize profit in land sale. “I think the government has made a smart move, as they understand people’s concerns over walled buildings and the need for better utilization of the waterfront,” Ting says. “There is a realization by the government that harbor front development isn’t just about land sales. We are not against commercial development—we understand this is very valuable land—but we believe we should also make good use of it to benefit residents.”
Meanwhile, the government has once again put the plot of land in Oil Street, where the former Government Supplies Department building is located, onto the land sale list. As it is being touted as the best plot of land for development in North Point, developers are expected to show interest in it. In tune with the North Point Estate area, the Town Planning Board has decreased the plot ratio to minimize development. It also amended the zoning plan so that more public space would be provided, and that three air corridors are required to be built in between buildings for better air flow for the district.
Need we say more? The development of the West Kowloon Cultural District has gone through rounds of consultations, half a dozen shortlists of names and plans, two chief executives and hundreds of civil servants for close to 10 years now.
Well, the government is clearly not planning to stall the project any longer. A new plan has been released on the scale and composition of the district—the district would be built in two phases, with 15 venues, including a museum that they promise will be a lot more than just a museum, called “M+”. This new plan will give 37 percent more performance venues seats, and a 52 percent increase in exhibition space.
Chief secretary Henry Tang announced last July that the government has picked three architecture firms to come up with plans for the district. They are Norman Foster’s Foster+Partners, Rem Koolhaas’s OMA and Rocco Yim’s Rocco Design Architects Limited. Foster, who came up with the master plan in 2002 that included the design of a canopy which attracted public ridicule, has been given a second chance for the district; Yim, who is a notable local architect, has been a favorite among the Hong Kong and Guangdong governments in the past few years and finally Koolhaas, most well-known in Hong Kong for his design of the CCTV Tower in Beijing, has recently set up an office in Hong Kong. The plans will soon be revealed and construction will hopefully start within the next three years. Currently, the West Kowloon Cultural District is the location of a temporary waterfront promenade—anyone who has been there knows how hard it is to get to.
Almost off the radar but one of the first to kick start some sort of a “promenade” construction, the recent completion of the Kwun Tong Waterfront Promenade Phase I gives us a glimpse of what is ahead in government plans. Chief Executive Donald Tsang mentioned the planning of promenades in his policy address last year. For decades, Kwun Tong waterfront has been nothing but a docking area. Currently most of the docks are occupied by 12 recycling companies—tons of waste paper piled into a hill is not uncommon in Kwun Tong waterfront.
To accommodate the development in Kai Tak, the government has planned to build a permanent 900-meter promenade in Kwun Tong and by doing so they have to close down the docking area for it by 2011. However, the 12 recyclers have refused to move unless the government can find a location for all of them to move to. Because of the hiccup, only 200 meters of the promenade has been constructed and it opened last month. As seen in pictures here, the promenade consists of a wooden platform for strolls, a grass area that is surprisingly off the limits and in the middle of everything is a big light installation—the structure looks like boxes stacking up to symbolize the area’s previous use. Oh and it lights up at night and has steam coming out of the floor that you can step into. Bizarre, we know. And how much did it cost us? $19.6 million—we kid you not.
Hung Hom’s waterfront has always earned its place in the news. In 2004, property developers Sun Hung Kai Properties and New World Development announced that they would demolish Hung Hom Peninsula, an empty, new seven-block residential project that they had only just finished building two years before, located by the Hung Hom waterfront. The reason? The buildings, originally built for a Home Ownership Scheme, were no longer suitable after the government sold their ownership rights to two developers who planned to turn them from an estate into private housing. What followed was a large-scale protest and heated public discussion on the developers’ decision—the developers backed down after less than a year and decided to renovate the buildings instead. The sale of the estate was opened last year after it was renamed “Harbour Place,” although it was seen as one of the low sellers last year—targeted at $7,000-$10,000 a square foot, the developers had to introduce a big discount of at least $2,000 to attract buyers.
Shortly after the sale of Harbour Place was opened, news loomed regarding a government plan to develop the vacant lands by the waters (close to the ferry pier) for commercial and residential uses. The first piece of land is 168,269 square feet, which the government has zoned as a hotel, dining and retail area. Meanwhile, the other plot of land is 147,502 square feet for office uses. From an artist’s impression of the government’s development proposal, what one sees are podium buildings, and high-rises occupying this last empty waterfront area in Hung Hom.
Having always complained about the lack of public space and facilities, Hung Hom residents have decided to draft a counter proposal to the government’s, which suggests rezoning the area into a green public zone, and building a waterfront park there instead. The park would be right outside the ferry pier, with recreational facilities that include a sports stadium.
Architect Ian Brownlee said in an earlier interview with HK Magazine that he was in favor of the counter proposal as the government’s proposal of residential and commercial development would only worsen the heat island effect in Hung Hom and Tsim Sha Tsui (the heat island effect is a phenomenon where pollution causes the temperature in a city to rise because the air flow is stopped by high-rises surrounding the areas). “Hung Hom is a major air ventilation gateway,” he says. “It’s one of the prime areas where wind comes in from the northeast and the southwest.” Meanwhile, urban planner Peter Cookson Smith is not too keen on the waterfront park idea. “We cannot aim to have a waterfront park everywhere, particularly not in a comprehensive development area such as Hung Hom,” he says.
In January, the government officially put the land on the land sale list. It is believed the two plots of land could bring in $5.05 billion through land sale. Experts are now saying developers will soon be showing a lot of interest in these lands, which also means, the government’s proposed development is very likely to happen soon.