The public may be excused for feeling dismayed by the latest developments on the West Kowloon Cultural District. The project to build a world-class arts hub faces spiralling costs and delays to the high-speed railway whose terminus is located beneath part of the site. This has prompted officials to consider constructing the HK$23 billion basement in phases, in the hope of delivering a "mini-arts hub" first. But that means key venues for concerts and performances will be delayed, without a timetable for building them.
Cost overruns for major works are not uncommon, particularly when a project spans years. The original HK$21.6 billion budget was approved in 2008, based on parameters that appear in hindsight to have been grossly insufficient. As construction costs soar, adjustments are inevitable.
That said, it is shocking that the 17-hectare basement will now be more expensive than the arts facilities above it. With the impact of the delay to the high-speed railway still uncertain, concerns about the hub becoming a financial black hole are understandable. Vigorous cost controls are needed.
A suggestion that the basement be dropped may hold appeal for some. But the structure will house all traffic and logistics facilities and is the centrepiece of Norman Foster's design, without which there would not be 23 hectares of open space for the public to enjoy above ground. The concept has gone through statutory town planning procedures. It is impractical to push for changes that would effectively send the project back to the drawing board.
More disturbing, though, is the revelation that the HK$21.6 billion is only enough for the first two stages of development. Key facilities such as the grand theatre, opera house and music centre will now be put back to the third phase without a timetable. Yet these form the indispensable "hardware" of the arts hub. The authority should explore ways to deliver them.
It will take years before our arts hub is up and running. Championed by the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in 1998, the project has been dragging on for 16 years, and the site is still nothing more than a deserted corner for jogging, cycling and some ad hoc events. Building a world-class cultural landmark requires vision and concepts as much as funding and planning. Now that it comes with a steeper price tag, it should be given what it takes to complete it. But taxpayers need to be convinced that any extra funding sought will be well spent.