When Robert Lomax took the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to the Central harborfront back in 1960 the journey took long enough for him to fall madly in love with Suzie Wong. These days the pair would just about have time to say hello.
Some 58 years on from the era when William Holden and Nancy Kwan took the lead roles in cinema classic The World of Suzie Wong, reclamation has cut the time needed to travel that particular stretch of water by half.
The project – which came in at a cost of around HK$36 billion – was made to facilitate the building of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass and the extension of the MTR’s North Island Line, designed to ease traffic pressure and cut back on travelling time. The payback, for the people of Hong Kong was that the government had in 1996 passed the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance into legislation, meaning the Central reclaim was to be last of its kind.
Many hoped that such plans would kick start a movement to bring the Hong Kong harborfront to life. Stretching for about 73-kilometers, access to the waterfront has always been limited, given over initially to the sea trade that fuelled the city’s rise to international prominence – and wealth. Since port facilities were moved out of town, access has largely either been sealed off entirely or allowed for light industrial purposes such as parking spaces for trucks and vans or even storage. It has been estimated that the public today has access to less than 40 percent of the harborfront.
Speaking at last year’s World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017 Hong Kong, the city’s chief secretary for administration, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, told guests the government saw Victoria Harbour as a “precious asset.”
“We are determined to enliven the harborfront along the Victoria Harbour for public enjoyment,” said Cheung.
But progress has been slow, and there are those in the community who are worried at the direction some of the government’s plans are taking. First mapped out after the two-stage public engagement exercise conducted by the Planning Department in 2008, and then updated in 2016, plans for the above-ground harborfront include space for events, gardens, and local-scale retail outlets at a cost of over HK$12 billion.
The main worry comes over the designated “Site 3,” earmarked for sale at around HK$80 billion (US$10 billion), and with no special conditions placed on how it might be developed. One of the reasons anything to do with management of the harborfront takes so long is the fact that any plans comes under the auspices of a Harbourfront Commission, which lacks the power to regulate.
The positive is that progress is being made. The Central Harbourfront Event Space opened five years ago and is now home to a score of regular annual events, such as the staging of the Clockenflap music and arts festival each November, and the The AIA Great European Carnival across the Christmas-New Year-Lunar New Year period. A ferris wheel towers over the AIA Vitality Park, which runs regular community events, and the promise of a walkway stretching from Central to Wan Chai has pretty much been realized – although you’re taking your chances with officials should you have the temerity to want to cycle along the foreshore.
“Around one million people attend the carnival each year, 93 percent of whom are Hongkongers. It’s been embraced by the community and the venue plays a huge role in that – people just love being by this great harbor,” said Michael Denmark, founder and CEO of the MDME group which stages the carnival and manages the Hong Kong Observation Wheel and AIA Vitality Park.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the wheel with over 1.5 million people visiting since we took on the tender last November. There are events now week in week out and the public are flocking to the harborfront. None of this could have happened without the government’s help and this is just the start of what can be achieved.”
Walk through the district on any given day now and, alongside the wheel and AIA Vitality Park, you’ll find an overgrown and vacant fenced-off lot, a bus terminus, and the nearly finished entrance to the Central-Wan Chai Bypass.
There’s also an example of how the plans can be altered. Some faith lost in the decision-making process when plans for an 18-storey exhaust building for the bypass were revealed – and the building is currently taking shape right next to what had initially been planned as public open space.
Over the past decade a procession of government ministers has travelled overseas to look at how other cities make the most of their harborfronts. And a procession of visitors to Hong Kong have looked at the state of ours and scratched their heads.
Tom Murphy was mayor of Pittsburgh when the steel town to many looked to be on its last legs as the fortunes of the industry that had driven its economy collapsed. He was behind an innovative plan to work with big business in funneling funds into the revitalization of the city, with new parks and mixed-use developments sprouting up – and Pittsburgh’s riverside districts taking on a new life of their own.
“You have the most spectacular waterfront in the world and your waterfront is crying out for activity and animation,” Murphy told AmCham's Smart City Summit in June. “Not just concrete walkways, but a place that really engages people and is green and where people want to go. The hardest thing for cities to do is to take a risk, to say: ‘This is the way we’ve always done it, we’re not going to think like that anymore, we’re going to do it in a different kind of way.”
Now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, Murphy is one of the world’s leading thinkers on city planning.
“Hong Kong is one of the great cities of the world. It has gotten there because it’s had good leadership,” said Murphy. “The question is whether you rest on that status quo of being one of the great cities, or whether you’re willing to reach for the future. Reaching for the future is kicking the door down.
“You can’t get there without changing the status quo, without changing how government officials think about doing things. Cities need to know where they want to go, they need to know what they want to look like. They can’t just simply bid a piece of property out and hope for the best.”
Our advice to the Hong Kong government…
Site 3 as a Role Model of Development
The government’s business-as-usual approach shows a lack of vision over the development of one of the most iconic waterfront sites in the world. A decade on from the initial public consultation, the Planning Department’s brief now feels out of step with the public’s desires as well as latest trends in sustainability, technology, conceptual design and finance. The limited nature of the planning brief combined with a “price maximization” tender approach undermines the key objective for this redevelopment to attain a truly world-class standard and to benefit the whole community.
The redevelopment is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to brand Hong Kong. AmCham urges that international best practices be followed in project selection and public engagement to ensure that the redevelopment both serves the public interest and demonstrates world-class excellence in design and project execution.
We believe that Site 3 is worthy of special attention to reinvigorate the Hong Kong spirit and promote the city internationally. AmCham urges the government to:
- Designate Victoria Harbourfront a “Special Design Area.”
- Invite bids on a “Development Brief” instead of a “Planning Brief” to include social, environmental and political considerations.
- Brand the exercise internationally to attract state of the art technology and design.
- Use the project as a model for sustainable development in the public interest.
- Put aside the business-as-usual approach to bidding to allow true competition on merit coupled with financial viability.