A long wait for arts and heritage redevelopment projects

Peter Kammerer says projects for purely public use such as the Central Market redevelopment are allowed to drag on for far too long

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 5:51am

I had a full head of hair when hawkers moved out of Central Market in 2003 and plans to sell the site for an office tower were overturned by the awakening heritage movement. My hairline had started to recede in 2009 when former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced that the unremarkable building would be turned into a "green oasis" based around arts, culture and dining. Last month, with the Town Planning Board having approved detailed designs, I realise that not only is my temple a barren place, but I am also fast thinning. I fear that when the project is finished by the projected date of 2017, I will in all likelihood be bald.

What's on my head won't affect my ability to enjoy whatever takes shape on the site. But it did occur to me as I was walking through to the Mid-Levels escalator the other day that a project that is relatively straightforward, involving as it does little more than a box shape, is taking an extraordinary amount of time. It harkens to the redevelopment of the Central Police Station on Hollywood Road, discussed and argued over since the late 1990s and still far from certain. Or, on a grander scale, the Kai Tak and West Kowloon developments, a long time in the making and years yet from completion.

What these projects have in common - and which may explain the tardiness in making them come alive - is that they are about public use. If they were for civil servants, had a mainland element or were in private hands, they would have been constructed in the twinkling of an eye. Take the Central Government Offices at Tamar, a mere three years in the making, or the high-speed rail line to Shenzhen, which between funding approval and opening, will have taken just six years. Hong Kong International Airport, at the time of opening in 1998 the world's most ambitious and expensive project, was built in a shade under seven years, while Hong Kong Disneyland, from the groundbreaking to the grand opening, took two years and eight months.

If the freewheeling ways of the mainland applied here, even less time would pass. Corruption and poor enforcement of laws and regulations mean that projects can be completed in record-breaking times. The world's biggest building, the 1.7 million-square-metre New Century Global Centre in Chengdu - the size of 20 Sydney opera houses or three Pentagons - was opened on June 28, three years after construction began. A startling time-lapse video on YouTube shows how a 30-storey hotel in the Hunan capital of Changsha rose in just 15 days. The same company, the Broad Group, is presently putting up in the city what it claims will be the world's tallest building, the 202-storey, 838-metre, Sky City, which will have been built in a blistering 10 months should next April's completion date be met.

But I am not advocating Hong Kong turn to vanity projects or adopt the model of thinking in terms of construction-speed records. We have laws, rules, regulations and consultation processes for good reason. Nonetheless, it is obvious that authorities are giving priority to self-interest and schemes with high revenue potential. Unless they put quality of life and public interest first, arts, culture and heritage projects will continue to move forward at a snail's pace.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post