Making a pitch for better planning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 1997, 12:00am

A thrill of horror and apprehension shot up my spine. The Urban Council wants to build a vastly expensive sports arena on the West Kowloon reclamation, one that can also be used for pop shows. Haven't we heard this song before? What is even more ominous is that some councillors are demanding they play an active role in its planning and development. Heaven help us.

The same council also aims to spend $1 billion on improving Victoria Park and nearby Causeway Bay Sports Ground with such grandiose gems as a heated indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool. The very name they suggest for the new facility - Hong Kong Central Park - illustrates the lack of imagination and absence of flair with which they approach the project.

Central Park? Don't they know it is not in Central? If we must rename the area then let us call it something like Deng Xiaoping Park. But Central Park? Never.

I hope it is not too late to stop our eager municipal elders before they romp too far down this track. Pray, let the councillors consider before they start unveiling plans written in granite.

In concept, both ideas are sound and desirable. But before Urbco splashes in feet first, can they please stop, step back and carefully consider the issues. Can they make sure, this time, that what they ask for is what they are going to get, that the stadium and the sporting grounds are cost effective, well-planned and when built, deliver what they are meant to provide? Please.

We can well do without a repetition of the humbling Hong Kong Stadium debacle, which has succeeded in making us look preposterous. Similarly, there's no need for a repeat performance of the Cultural Centre design flaws; how could a windowless building be placed in front of the world's most stunning harbour view? Admittedly, the council was not totally to blame for the stadium. The original concept was for a sporting facility where world class competitions could be held. We got that, no argument. But when something that was ideal for football turned out to be almost totally useless for major pop concerts, everyone seemed surprised.

Why? Surely, if the dual-use provisions had been clearly outlined at the planning stages, the stadium could have been built to cope with the Hong Kong Sevens and Elton John. But they were not considered. A stadium for sports was what was called for. This is what was planned and it is what we got. Tough luck, pop fans.

Let's not make the same mistake again.

Around the world there are many engineering and construction consultancy firms that specialise in advising on such projects. They sit down with clients and look at the big picture.

They use skill and commonsense. What is the building for? Who will use it? Day or night? How best can a performing platform be built to swiftly swing out over the turf? Can spectators see a singer as well as they can watch a footballer? If the lighting right? Can they hear? Can they cheer? And where is the facility? Is it adequately served by public transport; not much good having the world's best stadium if people can't get to it. Car parking; how many are needed? What effect will operations have on neighbours? Are changing rooms for rugby teams able to equally cope as dressing rooms for opera singers? Are there sufficient toilets for a full-house crowd, enough outlets for food and drink sales? Above all, the hard questions that need to be asked by an independent, shrewd and hard-headed outside observer have to focus on the efficiency of any planned facility. Will it work? I suggest such scrutiny should be tough and searching. If we are going to spend this sort of money, then let's make it a real investment in our future and make sure we get the best money can buy, something we can point to with pride. Let's make it the best in the world. It will not cost that much more.

What scares me, and would probably terrify government planners and petrify civil engineers, are demands by councillors that they are actively involved in planning and overseeing construction and development of the proposed West Kowloon stadium.

In the name of mercy, no! Haven't they learned their lesson? It seems not. Let the council set broad aims, budgets and policies, and then let professionals get on with the work.

Before the first foundation is dug and a load of cement poured, full plans need to be unveiled. These should be detailed and explanatory, showing how an international football event can be held in the stadium one afternoon and it be satisfactorily and effectively converted to hold a major concert that night.

There must be advice from the Environmental Protection Department on noise, the Transport Department on traffic flow and crowd movement, the police on safety and other agencies likely to be concerned with health, food supply and drainage.

All this must be knitted into reports from consultants who have to guarantee the facility will fill its multi-purpose use. Then the plans must be made public so the real owners - the people of Hong Kong - have a chance to comment about what is being built in their name with their money.

The Urban Council can blame nobody but itself if the public feels wary about its involvement in such projects. It has been humiliating to be the butt of world jokes about the stadium when councillors make inane suggestions that teenagers go to pop concerts on the proviso they do not clap or shout and listen through earphones.

The Urban Council has had a bad run in the press in the past year - mostly due to its own blunders. The department which carries out its policies by and large does a good job in its cultural and entertainment programmes.

But they are not builders of stadiums nor planners of parks which require specialist skills. Let us hope Urbco has the wisdom to engage such talent from the start to prevent stadiums where nobody can sing.