A chance to be heard on the future of Kai Tak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 12:00am

The old Kai Tak airport is synonymous with Hong Kong's dramatic transformation from a tropical backwater into an international financial hub. It is also inseparable from pictures of heart-stopping landings among the city's skyscrapers. In its next incarnation, Kai Tak could take on a whole new image. City centre parkland, cruise terminal or stadium complex - these are among the possibilities - and the remarkable part is that the government's consultation on the site's future is open-ended enough that nothing is ruled out.

There seems to be a genuine opportunity here for the public to make its views heard, but it will not last for ever. The first stage of the consultation exercise runs from now until November. The last stage ends next summer, before a final plan for the site is put forward. The chance to say something about the future of this important and symbolic site should not be missed.

If this consultation were taking place just a year ago, the government would almost certainly have put forward its preferred option and worked hard to swing public opinion behind it. Thanks to a generally higher level of awareness about environmental and planning issues - and a January court ruling that raises the bar for decisions to reclaim land from the harbour - the government's last plan for the site is not taken as the bottom line but as a general outline of what is possible.

Under the previous proposal, 133 hectares of land would have been created by filling in the harbour and the site would include housing for 260,000 people. But the new consultation documents take no stand on land use, whether for housing and commercial development, a cruise terminal or a 50,000-seat multi-purpose stadium, all of which are mentioned as options to be considered.

Unfortunately, the possibility of extensive green space has been left out. This is a major oversight, especially since government officials have floated just such an idea for the Kai Tak site in recent months. That it does not appear in the consultation document does not mean individuals and groups cannot raise the idea. Harbourfront parkland in the heart of the city, and on a site of some historic significance, would be a stunning addition to the cityscape. If this is what people want, now is their chance to say so.

As with any development proposal, there will be difficult and technical questions to be answered.

The channel between the runway and the Kowloon peninsula is notoriously polluted, and questions about what uses this waterway should be put to are part of the consultation. Some experts advocate filling it in as a way of dealing with the pollution, but any such plans will have to meet the high standard of public need set by the courts in January's Wan Chai North reclamation case.

There is the issue of whether and how to recognise the site's place in Hong Kong's aviation history. At least one group of flying enthusiasts has been lobbying hard for part of the runway to be preserved for use by amateur pilots and an aviation museum. Whether this is possible or compatible with other uses for the site is sure to come up. Also, the public and experts will have to weigh in on whether Kai Tak is the right place for a major cruise terminal - or whether one is even needed at all.

Since the Kai Tak airport was closed six years ago, the area has served as a way station for empty buses and temporary home for a bowling alley, golfing range and go-kart racecourse. The new consultation on how this key plot of land might be better used should be seen as part of what could be the last opportunity to get the development of the entire harbourfront right. Mistakes made over the decades have left us with unsightly and largely inaccessible shorelines as well as an ever-shrinking harbour. Those with ideas for how to avoid this in southeast Kowloon should not miss their chance.