Is this goodbye?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2004, 12:00am

The dredgers are hard at work reclaiming more land in Central, and now is our last chance to save the harbour for Hong Kong's people

Victoria Harbour is the jewel in Hong Kong's crown. It is the essential reason for the city's existence, yet it is disappearing before our very eyes.

And, the Society for Protection of the Harbour argues, the public have been told lies about why. Right now, in the waters off Central, work is under way to create the outer sea wall for what will become the Central reclamation - a parcel of land that is supposed to be about a road, but that seems to be more about creating sites the government can sell for development.

There seems little chance of stopping the reclamation itself - but there is still a chance to prevent it being appropriated for yet more malls and offices.

Even for that consolation, however, we must act now.

The community has told the government it wants a world-class waterfront unencumbered by the shopping centres, office towers and mega-road projects that have destroyed the amenity of almost every other piece of reclaimed land in the city. The government says it is listening and that aside from building the Central-Wan Chai bypass it intends to create large public green spaces beside the harbour.

This, according to the society, is a deception. 'Members of the government, including the chief executive, have consistently misled the public about what they have planned for the site, and an official brochure issued last year that purported to state the facts about the reclamation was deliberately misleading and smelled of propaganda,' says the former head of the society, Winston Chu.

As an example he gives a government-produced brochure, All About Central Reclamation Phase III, released in December last year. Not one of the 10 pictures or diagrams in it representing the new harbour front shows that 150 metres of the new shoreline will be dedicated to a maritime berth for People's Liberation Army vessels.

And while the government talks of the 23-hectare reclamation to build the bypass and provide more public facilities near the water, it has produced a plan for the area that will see new office and commercial space built that is equivalent to more than six times that provided by the giant Two IFC.

Some green space is left for the public to enjoy, but to get to it people will have to pass between new multi-storey shopping malls and cross a six-lane highway. This road, code-named P2, is not the Central bypass, but a new trunk road needed to service all the new shops and offices which will inhabit the site.

For the Society for Protection of the Harbour's current chairwoman, Christine Loh, the choice is stark. 'Do we favour connecting with the city through open spaces that reconnect us with nature within an already densely built-up environment, or do we favour yet more shopping malls?'

The society had always feared the land would be used for commercial development, but after closely examining the government's gazetted plans, they were appalled at the true scale of what is planned. 'It is outrageous,' Ms Loh says. 'How come nobody knows?'

Mr Chu says the government has been dishonest from day one. 'This government is so devious. I'm concerned that they have been misleading the public about what is going to happen in the central business district and about how the reclaimed land is going to be used,' he said.

A favourite trick has been to say that actual development on the site is only 5.1 hectares, but Mr Chu notes the government's outline zoning plan for the area shows buildings covering 11 hectares, both on and immediately around the site.

The society points to a speech Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa gave on October 17 last year as more proof of deception. He said: 'The reclamation in Central is only for one purpose, that is, to build a bypass. The road we are building is a road which is actually a tunnel and ... above that, there would be sort of a park or promenade for the public to enjoy the harbour from the Central area. There will be no commercial buildings on top of it, and it will be, I believe, a very beautiful arrangement.'

Technically he was correct: there will be no commercial buildings on top of the park. That is because a large section of the park he was referring to is itself actually on top of commercial buildings.

Take the much-vaunted Statue Square corridor, which runs all the way to the waterfront. On overhead sketches and government brochures it looks at a glance like a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard, but in truth it is the roof of a four-storey strip mall with some trees planted on top.

That mall forms part of what the government is calling its 'groundscraper' - a complex 440 metres long north to south with the mall on its east side and up to 16 floors of office and commercial space along the west side. According to government specifications, it and the new Central Government Offices on the Tamar site could alone potentially add more than 10 million square feet of commercial and office space to the waterfront. Compare that to the two million offered by the 88-storey Two IFC that towers over the area.

Using the government's own figures, the society has developed a series of images - shown overleaf - depicting what Central could look like if the developments go ahead. Those pictures will be used to appeal to the Town Planning Board to review its decision on the site.

With the traffic situation in Central and around Exchange Square supposedly the key driver behind the reclamation, the society believes these developments will have the opposite effect to that desired.

'How much extra traffic are these buildings going to bring into the area?' Ms Loh asks. 'You have to build this enormous P2 road to cater for all the extra office traffic. With that road cutting through there, the whole space is compromised.'

All of this, of course, begs the question of whether Central really needs more malls and offices.

The secretary-general of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong, Louis Loong Hon-biu, said his organisation was unconvinced of the need for such a large area of reclamation in Central.

'We are supportive of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance and of the decision of the Court of Final Appeal,' Mr Loong said. Last January's judgment - detailed overleaf - demands that comprehensive justification be proven for future reclamation projects.

'We have bought into the government's view that the reclamation is needed to allow for the Central-Wan Chai bypass road, but our view is that there is quite a bit of the reclaimed land that is slated for commercial development which does not comply with the criteria laid down by the court. Building a bypass is one thing, but taking up land to erect further commercial buildings is another. Obviously once that land has been reclaimed it cannot be left vacant. But our view is that it should be put to community use rather than to build further commercial buildings.'

Christine Loh is of the same opinion.

'Hong Kong has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a signature space that defines what the city is and what its people aspire to be. We can have the government's vision of extensive shopping malls with open spaces only on roof tops, or we can have an extensive lush and sensuous experience with nature along the waterfront,' she said. 'The Hong Kong people are the ultimate protectors of their natural heritage and they must act now to prevent its further destruction.'