Hong Kong’s Cen­tral Har­bourfront could be the world’s most valu­able real es­tate, yet no user­friendly plan or de­sign has been put for­ward

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY CHRISTOPHER DE­WOLF

Hong Kong's Cen­tral har­bourfront could be the world's most valu­able real es­tate, yet no user-friendly plan or de­sign has been put for­ward that could turn it into a place to ri­val Syd­ney or Stock­holm. So far, the govern­ment of Car­rie Lam is qui­etly drop­ping any sem­blance of con­cern, and re­vert­ing to a sim­ple land auc­tion to dis­pose of the prop­erty. This may be the last chance to aim high for the har­bour that lies at the his­toric heart of the city.

Kacey Wong was sit­ting on a bench along the Cen­tral har­bourfront watch­ing a TV crew turn a sculp­ture into the set of a chat show. To his right were in­stal­la­tions by Antony Gorm­ley, Yayoi Kusama and other world-renowned scu­pltor-artists. Wong’s own works were to the left: a col­lec­tion of six wire­frame sculp­tures called As­teroids and Comets.

“It’s a real sculp­ture park – large ob­jects on grass with blue skies,” he said. “That’s rare in Hong Kong.”

The Har­bour Arts Sculp­ture Park lasted for seven weeks this year as an Arts Cen­tre ini­tia­tive to bring top-notch pub­lic art to the shores of Vic­to­ria Har­bour – an un­prece­dented exhibition in a city where qual­ity pub­lic art is still rare. The space it­self is rare, too. Less than 40 per cent of the har­bourfront is even ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic, and this par­tic­u­lar spot – re­claimed from the sea just over a decade ago – re­tains the feel­ing of an in­ter­stice: a left­over patch of earth caught be­tween the tow­ers of Cen­tral and the busy wa­ters of the har­bour.

As he walked around one of his sculp­tures, ex­am­in­ing its steel rod frame, Wong ex­plained how he wanted his work to ex­plore what cos­mic de­bris has to say about the ori­gins of the uni­verse. And some­how, be­ing here on the har­bourfront, with the govern­ment’s daunt­ing head­quar­ters in the back­ground and gleam­ing sky­scrapers be­yond that, it was mak­ing him think of the ori­gins of Hong Kong. There has never been a sculp­ture park on the wa­ter­front be­fore be­cause, un­til now, there has never been space for it. “Ev­ery prob­lem in Hong Kong is a prop­erty prob­lem,” he said.

Just past Wong’s sculp­tures, crowds were as­sem­bling for the lat­est edi­tion of Art Cen­tral, which takes place in a tem­po­rary event space that has played host to mu­sic fes­ti­vals and car­ni­vals. A Fer­ris wheel rises in the back­ground, next to a weedy va­cant lot, and a bit fur­ther along the wa­ter, there are ferry piers, a bus ter­mi­nus and the en­trance to a new un­der­ground ex­press­way that will by­pass Cen­tral and Wan Chai. It’s a col­lec­tion of ur­ban de­tri­tus – as­teroids and comets left over from the cos­mic churn of Hong Kong prop­erty de­vel­op­ment.

And it’s Hong Kong’s last, best hope for a great wa­ter­front to ri­val those of Stock­holm, Syd­ney and San Francisco.

“The Cen­tral har­bourfront is the jewel in the crown,” says Ni­cholas Brooke, chair­man of the Har­bourfront Com­mis­sion, which ad­vises the govern­ment. Although less than half of the of the har­bour’s 73-kilo­me­tre shore­line is ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic, he ex­pects that will soon change, as 50 of those kilo­me­tres are con­trolled by the govern­ment. “Be­cause of that we have the op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing very spe­cial.”

Just how spe­cial it will be de­pends en­tirely on the govern­ment. Its of­fi­cial plan prom­ises that “the new Cen­tral har­bourfront will be the cen­tre­piece of Hong Kong – a world-class show­piece at the heart of our city which is vi­brant, at­trac­tive, ac­ces­si­ble and sym­bolic.” There is lit­tle ev­i­dence of that hap­pen­ing to­day, more than a decade af­ter the plan was un­veiled. The Cen­tral har­bourfront is be­ing chopped into parcels for even­tual ten­der, sale and de­vel­op­ment. It’s busi­ness as usual – but many ob­servers say that isn’t good enough.

“We’re los­ing ma­jor op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says veteran ur­ban plan­ner Peter Cook­son-smith, who helped plan the Sha Tin and Tai Po New Towns in the 1970s. “One of our prob­lems in Hong Kong is we don’t have enough ex­am­ples of good ur­ban de­sign. We don’t have the sort of dy­namic wa­ter­front ac­tiv­ity that many cities do. If we want these things to hap­pen in Hong Kong, we have to change the way we go about ur­ban plan­ning and de­sign.”

Hong Kong wouldn’t ex­ist with­out its har­bour. It’s the only rea­son the Bri­tish cov­eted a rocky is­land with few nat­u­ral re­sources aside from in­cense wood, gran­ite and fish. And it’s the rea­son why Hong Kong even­tu­ally be­came one of the world’s great com­mer­cial cities, a trad­ing hub built on the

flow of peo­ple, goods and money – a his­tory that be­gins in Cen­tral.

“The Cen­tral wa­ter­front has al­ways been the place where Hong Kong de­vel­oped its iden­tity as a city,” says ar­chi­tect Christopher Law. And like the city’s iden­tity, that wa­ter­front has con­stantly shifted. When the Bri­tish first landed at Pos­ses­sion Point in 1841, wa­ter washed up against a bluff be­low present-day Hol­ly­wood Road (the sud­den turn on Queen’s Road West marks the spot). Bit by bit, the shore­line was ex­tended by dump­ing soil into the wa­ter. Each phase of land recla­ma­tion gave the city a newer and even more im­pres­sive layer. First there was was Queen’s Road, then Des Voeux Road and fi­nally, for a long time, Con­naught Road, all of which took turns as the “Cen­tral Praya” – a Por­tuguese word for beach that was bor­rowed and adapted by the Bri­tish.

If you look at a photo of the Cen­tral Praya in 1925, you’ll see many of the city’s most im­por­tant struc­tures – or­nate stone build­ings with gen­er­ous bal­conies and ve­ran­dahs. There was the Queen’s Build­ing, Gen­eral Post Of­fice, Hong Kong Club, Cen­tral Fire Sta­tion, Supreme Court. In front of them was the Queen’s Pier, with grand neo­clas­si­cal arches that re­ceived princes and pau­pers alike, and the Star Ferry Pier, capped by a frilly Vic­to­rian clock tower. A con­stant churn of boats brought waves of peo­ple ashore through­out the day. The city and har­bour were one and the same.

Af­ter World War II, a few small recla­ma­tion projects added new land here and there. A pier on the west side of Cen­tral was oc­cu­pied by a night mar­ket known as Dai Daat Dei (“the big place”) and, af­fec­tion­ately, the Poor Man’s Nightclub. Stalls of­fered car­ni­val games and hearty wok-fired dishes like clams in spicy black bean sauce. “It was af­ford­able, a place where you could spend time, eat some­thing and loi­ter around in the sea breeze,” says ur­ban plan­ner Pong Yuen-yee.

Just across Con­naught Road from Statue Square, land was cre­ated for Ed­in­burgh Place, a clus­ter of white­washed civic


struc­tures with a breezy mod­ernist de­sign. City Hall of­fered a pub­lic li­brary with views over the har­bour, with a theatre and dim sum place next door. A new it­er­a­tion of the Queen’s Pier opened onto a small plaza. Next door, a re­built Star Ferry Pier traded its Vic­to­rian clock tower in for a stylishly min­i­mal­ist pil­lar painted in white and green.

Christopher Law says his first clear mem­ory of the har­bour was when he passed by Ed­in­burgh Place on a bus when he was six years old. “We lived in Happy Val­ley and took the num­ber 1 bus – it was a sin­gle decker,” he says. As it rum­bled past the ceno­taph, City Hall and the Star Ferry Pier, Law felt some­thing stir in him. “That was my first re­al­i­sa­tion that I am a Hongkonger, that I am a part of this place,” he says. “I knew noth­ing of city plan­ning at the time. But I was gob­s­macked.”

With ev­ery new bit of land recla­ma­tion, how­ever, that soul­stir­ring view grew more de­tached from the city. By the time 20 hectares of har­bourfront were re­claimed for Hong Kong Sta­tion and the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cen­tre in the early 1990s, there was a tan­gi­ble fear that Hong Kong might one day lose its har­bour. Work­ing with ac­tivist Win­ston Chu, lawmaker Chris­tine Loh suc­cess­fully passed the Pro­tec­tion of the Har­bour Or­di­nance, which pro­hibits fu­ture land recla­ma­tion in the har­bour un­less the govern­ment can prove there is an over­rid­ing pub­lic need. That put the brakes on wild pro­pos­als to fill in the whole of Kowloon Bay or the space be­tween Kennedy Town and Green Is­land, but one last bit of recla­ma­tion man­aged to squeak through be­fore the or­di­nance came into ef­fect in 1996.

That fi­nal recla­ma­tion project, which stretches from the IFC all the way east to Cause­way Bay, makes room for the Cen­tral-wan Chai by­pass and the pro­posed North Is­land Line (which is to run along Hong Kong Is­land’s north shore, in par­al­lel with the cur­rent line) of the MTR. But there was never clear

idea of what to do with all the new space on top. Peo­ple feared it would sim­ply be sold to the high­est bid­der and de­vel­oped into a for­est of high­rises – par for the course in a city whose govern­ment cof­fers are filled mostly by land sales.

Be­tween 2006 and 2007, the recla­ma­tion laid waste to land­marks like Queen’s Pier and the Star Ferry Pier, which ig­nited a pas­sion­ate and sur­pris­ing youth move­ment to save them. For the first time, it seemed like Hong Kong was think­ing crit­i­cally about the fu­ture of its har­bour.

“If this wasn’t the Cen­tral har­bourfront, if it was any other part of the har­bour, it wouldn’t have re­ceived as much at­ten­tion,” says Pong Yuen-yee. “We have al­ways taken the har­bour for granted. We didn’t trea­sure it. So we have to give credit to Paul Zim­mer­man. For more than 10 years he has been ad­vo­cat­ing to give peo­ple ac­cess to the har­bourfront.”

Zim­mer­man moved to Hong Kong in 1984 to work for a Dutch bank. But when the fu­ture of the Cen­tral har­bourfront was thrown into ques­tion, he made his first moves into com­mu­nity ac­tivism. “I’m from Rot­ter­dam,” he says. “We have a lot of wa­ter­front and it’s where a lot of things hap­pen.” But the op­po­site was true in Hong Kong: with ev­ery pass­ing year, fewer and fewer things seemed to be tak­ing place next to the har­bour. Hong Kong was ne­glect­ing the very thing that had brought it to life.

In 2002, Zim­mer­man got to­gether with Chris­tine Loh and busi­ness man-turned-en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Mark us Shaw to start De­sign­ing Hong Kong. Its first cam­paign was to lobby for a har­bourfront ded­i­cated to the pub­lic, with space to do all of the things you can’t in the city’s jam-packed streets: have a pic­nic, fly a kite, lis­ten to live mu­sic, have din­ner out­doors. “We are quite pos­si­bly the rich­est city that has ever ex­isted – what are we leav­ing be­hind for pos­ter­ity?” asks Shaw. The har­bourfront could be one an­swer.

The govern­ment got to work draft­ing a mas­ter plan. It was un­veiled in 2006. The recla­ma­tion was di­vided into eight sites. Site 4 was de­signed as a space for the de­mol­ished Star Ferry clock tower to be re­built. The Queen’s Pier is sup­posed to re­turn to Site 8. Site

7 is the large open space that has been tem­po­rar­ily leased to an events com­pany, which plays host to fes­ti­vals like Clock­en­flap and the AIA Car­ni­val. Site 3, which spans the area from the Gen­eral Post Of­fice to the present-day Star Ferry Pier, will be de­vel­oped with low-rise build­ings con­tain­ing 150,000 square me­tres of of­fice and re­tail, plus land­scaped out­door ar­eas.

In re­sponse to this ar­ti­cle, the govern­ment is­sued a state­ment say­ing that a de­sign study was com­pleted in 2011 af­ter “ex­ten­sive pub­lic en­gage­ment ex­er­cises”, and that all the de­sign re­quire­ments have been writ­ten into a plan­ning brief en­dorsed by the Town Plan­ning Board in Jan­uary 2017. For Site 3, any fu­ture devel­oper will have to sub­mit a mas­ter plan based on the plan­ning brief for TPB’S ap­proval. This, the govern­ment says, pro­vides “ad­e­quete safe­guards to en­sure that the UDS rec­om­mended de­sign, which has gained broad com­mu­nity sup­port, will be fully im­ple­mented.”

Ow­ing to the com­plex­ity of the site, the govern­ment says it is un­wiling to con­sider an­other means of sell­ing the land to a devel­oper. “We should be mind­ful of the im­pact on mar­ket bid­ding in­ter­est if a more com­pli­cated dis­posal process is adopted... our in­ten­tion is to dis­pose of Site 3 through nor­mal land ten­der ar­range­ment.”

With re­gard to the tem­po­rary event spa­ces in the other sites of the Cen­tral Har­bourfront area, the govern­ment of­fered no timetable for de­vel­op­ment, or to say what would be done other than cre­ate “wa­ter­front re­lated com­mer­cial and leisure uses and a 10-hectare wa­ter­front prom­e­nade cum ur­ban park.”

“It’s re­ally rather dis­ap­point­ing,” says Peter Cook­sonSmith. “[The plan] is gen­er­ally in­suf­fi­cient to safe­guard the pub­lic in­ter­est and up­hold the stan­dard of de­sign we ex­pect to see along the har­bourfront.”

Cook­son-smith, along with a host of other land-use ex­perts in­ter­viewed for this story, says the prob­lem is that the govern­ment is treat­ing the Cen­tral har­bourfront like any other piece of land in Hong Kong. Site 3 is a par­tic­u­lar bone of con­tention. It will be sold for an es­ti­mated HK$80 bil­lion, with no more than the usual con­di­tions placed on its de­vel­op­ment. Govern­ment plan­ners des­ig­nate a max­i­mum gross floor area and im­pose min­i­mum con­di­tions for green­ery and pub­lic space. Be­yond that, what hap­pens to the land is up to the devel­oper. Un­like many other cities around the world, Hong Kong has no de­sign guide­lines and noth­ing to en­sure what is built will ac­tu­ally be high qual­ity, re­mark­able or in­ter­est­ing.

“You end up with an en­ve­lope and the spec­i­fi­ca­tion of what to put in­side that en­ve­lope, and de­sign goes out the win­dow,” says


Cook­son-smith. “Do you want cafés and all that? How do pedes­tri­ans re­late to the pub­lic realm? All of these things should be in the de­sign brief. Right now, a devel­oper could sim­ply cre­ate a glass box.”

The rea­son for this lais­sez-faire ap­proach goes back to the way the Hong Kong govern­ment has al­ways made its money – not through tax­a­tion, but through land sales. The more con­di­tions the govern­ment puts on a land sale, the harder it is to sell, at least ac­cord­ing to the­ory. “It was ex­pe­di­ent to put out sites with the min­i­mum pos­si­ble is­sues as­so­ci­ated with them,” says Cook­son-smith.

That prac­tice con­tin­ues even with a site as prom­i­nent as the Cen­tral har­bourfront. The rea­son may sim­ply be bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia; this is how we do things be­cause this is the way things have al­ways been done. But Michele Wel­don, pro­gramme di­rec­tor of ur­ban is­sues think tank Civic Ex­change, says the govern­ment’s enor­mous fis­cal re­serves — about HK$1.8 tril­lion, ac­cord­ing to one es­ti­mate — sug­gest there isn’t any need to sell off the har­bourfront to the high­est bid­der. “This kind of space is in­valu­able,” she says. “You can’t put a dol­lar fig­ure on it.”

Ni­cholas Brooke says it’s not too late to com­pletely re­think the govern­ment’s plans. “The govern­ment says they can’t move away from the nor­mal ten­der

method be­cause they might get a smaller cheque,” he says. “Well, tough. We have to move away from a dol­lar-driven ap­proach.”

There are other prob­lems, too. Wel­don stresses how im­por­tant it is that the har­bourfront be ac­ces­si­ble by foot: “Walk­ing is how we make sense of the city,” she says. But roads are usu­ally the first things planned on any new piece of land in Hong Kong, and this was the case for the Cen­tral har­bourfront, which is al­ready sep­a­rated by Cen­tral by the dual car­riage­way of Lung Wo Road. “The Trans­port Depart­ment still thinks it is their job to get as much road space as pos­si­ble for ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic – and ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic al­ways gets pri­or­ity,” says Pong Yuen-yee. It’s hard to build an ac­ces­si­ble har­bourfront when you need to cross a mo­tor­way to get there.

Aside from the Trans­port Depart­ment, there are nine dif­fer­ent govern­ment de­part­ments in­volved in man­ag­ing Hong Kong’s ur­ban space, which cre­ates many bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles to shak­ing things up. “The civil ser­vice is pre­scrip­tive and un­com­fort­able with sub­jec­tive judge­ment,” says Brooke.

One po­ten­tial work­around is to cre­ate a body that can tran­scend the usual way of do­ing things – some­thing that has hap­pened across the har­bour in Kowloon, where the West Kowloon Cul­tural District Author­ity is free to man­age its parks, pub­lic spa­ces and cul­tural venues as it sees fit. The Har­bourfront Com­mis­sion’s mem­bers have long been lob­by­ing for the govern­ment to turn the com­mis­sion into an author­ity that would have se­ri­ous reg­u­la­tory pow­ers, and one of the most en­thu­si­as­tic pro­po­nents of that plan was Car­rie Lam, who served as Sec­re­tary for De­vel­op­ment. “This was al­most her baby,” says Brooke. But since be­com­ing Chief Ex­ec­u­tive, plans to es­tab­lish a Har­bourfront Author­ity have fallen by the way­side. “She has back­tracked in quite a ma­jor way.”

One pos­si­ble rea­son why the govern­ment has slowed its har­bourfront de­vel­op­ment plans lies with a cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the har­bour, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA).

Right in front of the pop-up sculp­ture park, in a prime lo­ca­tion along the wa­ter­front prom­e­nade, a strange clus­ter of build­ings sits be­neath a rust-stained metal arch. The en­tire com­pound is fenced off and over­grown with weeds. This is a berth for the PLA, whose Hong Kong gar­ri­son is head­quar­tered in the for­mer Prince of Wales Build­ing that tow­ers over the har­bourfront. In 2014, the govern­ment agreed to trans­fer con­trol over the berth to the PLA, de­spite 10,000 let­ters of ob­jec­tion from cit­i­zens who were wor­ried that there was no guar­an­teed pub­lic ac­cess.

De­sign­ing Hong Kong is su­ing the govern­ment to stop the trans­fer, and un­til the case is re­solved, the site con­tin­ues to rot away. It’s an apt sym­bol for the har­bourfront as a whole: with no ten­der date con­firmed for Site 3 and the cre­ation of the Har­bourfront Author­ity in­def­i­nitely post­poned, it’s hard to say what is in store for Hong Kong’s most prom­i­nent piece of land.

But there are no short­age of vi­sions. Mike Hill, one of the founders of the independent mu­sic fes­ti­val Clock­en­flap, says the suc­cess of the pri­vately-man­aged event space that has tem­po­rar­ily oc­cu­pied a large por­tion of the har­bourfront shows there is a need for what he calls a “venue park” – a green space that is open to the pub­lic most of the time, but can be booked out for out­door fes­ti­vals and cor­po­rate events. At the mo­ment, there is no ded­i­cated event venue in the of­fi­cial plans. “You can see there are events there week af­ter week, and if that space wasn’t there, where would all those events go – Taste, Clock­en­flap, Formula E, Cirque du Soleil?” he asks. “They would prob­a­bly dis­ap­pear.”

In 2015, lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture firm Lead 8 came up with an am­bi­tious vi­sion called Har­bour­loop that calls for the en­tire har­bourfront to be linked up by a recre­ational cor­ri­dor, punc­tu­ated by nodes of com­mer­cial and com­mu­nity fa­cil­i­ties that would draw peo­ple to the wa­ter. “In be­tween the nodes, there is cy­cling and walk­ing but also flex­i­ble ar­eas,” says de­signer Ian Ralph.

An­other lo­cal firm, Benoy, un­veiled a se­ries of three con­cept plans for one of those nodes – Site 3. One of the plans calls for a se­ries of ter­races that step down from an of­fice and re­tail com­plex to­wards the wa­ter­front; an­other calls for a net­work of small laneways and build­ings along the wa­ter. It’s a fine-grained ap­proach lauded by both Paul Zim­mer­man and Peter Cook­son-smith. “It’s a pretty good idea – and that’s just one de­sign. Can you imag­ine if you had a com­pe­ti­tion?” says Zim­mer­man. So far, there is no com­pe­ti­tion on the hori­zon for Site 3 and no clear vi­sion for the fu­ture of the har­bourfront.

Mean­while, one of the world’s most valu­able pieces of real es­tate sits idle.


OP­PO­SITE Hong kong's Vic­to­ria Har­bour in 1968.

BE­LOW Creep­ing fur­ther into the har­bour in the early 1990s.

THIS SPREAD In Septem­ber 2017, Benoy's ur­ban de­sign team cre­ated ideas for Cen­tral Har­bourfront Site 3. The con­cepts of­fer an early rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how Site 3 might be trans­formed, ac­cord­ing to Benoy De­sign Di­rec­tor Si­mon Bee.

THIS PAGE Lead 8's de­sign vi­sion is to en­cir­cle Vic­to­ria Har­bour with a con­tin­u­ous loop of walk­ing and bike paths, with mixed use hubs and wa­ter taxi cross­ings. A 60-me­tre high gon­dola con­nects Cen­tral and West Kowloon.

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