West Kowloon Cultural District could be downsized

After the first facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District are built, there is a strong possibility the project will be downsized for pragmatic reasons, writes John Batten

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 9:52am

There was much fanfare about the HK$4.9 billion design for M+, the planned museum for visual culture at the West Kowloon Cultural District, by architects Herzog & de Meuron and British firm TFP Farrells.

But Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, chief secretary and chairwoman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, last week warned of a retreat from the previous administration's grand intentions for the site.

Without any guaranteed future funding, the second phase of construction could be stuck in limbo

Responding to the Legislative Council's criticism of cost overruns, Lam has committed the government to using the original HK$21.6 billion in funds (now HK$23 billion, after being invested) approved by Legco in 2008 to fund five anchor cultural facilities, and a park, within the chosen Foster + Partners master plan of the site.

This is a firm commitment to only fund a "first batch of facilities": the Chinese opera centre; M+; the eastern portion of the West Kowloon park, including an arts pavilion to be used by M+ while the museum is being built; Freespace, a black box theatre and an outdoor stage in the form of an acoustic shell, and a supposedly temporary modular performance venue seating 1,200 people.

The target to complete these facilities is 2018. The revenue-generating parts of the site, such as the hotels, could also be built in this period.

There will be about HK$5 billion left over from this initial spurt of construction. Before work can start on a second batch of facilities - such as the proposed Lyric Theatre and other performing venues, underground roads and infrastructure need to be built. This will require further government funding to be approved by Legco.

Reading between the lines, there will be further public discussion about what will be built, and how it will be funded.

There is now a strong possibility that the entire project will be downsized. Lam has cited "pragmatism" as the reason for these changes. This - and a dose of critical thinking - has long been lacking in the planning of the district. An early criticism by the arts community was that any planned cultural district should be allowed to grow organically. Facilities could be added to the site over time, as and when needed.

The previous administration, headed by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, rushed the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Ordinance through the legislature in 2008. Although the cultural district has a strong management structure in place, the important issue of governance of individual facilities was never resolved.

The initiative to implement this is the responsibility of the Home Affairs Bureau, whose policymaking lacks muscle in the government hierarchy. The authority has repeatedly stressed the need to get it built quickly, and Lam reiterated this urgency last week. But the main reason for delays has been the government's own vacillation on funding, and its indecision about the mixture of facilities to be built.

The biggest physical obstacle to construction has been getting access to the site itself. The MTR has possession of a large area of the site near Austin Road to build its own infrastructure for the controversial high-speed cross-border rail link. This has been played down as the funding for the train project was passed by Legco.

While perhaps an unrealistic atmosphere of expectation has pervaded the cultural district project for the past five years, Lam's "pragmatic" approach now brings the project within the Leung Chun-ying administration's orbit. The project might have been sidelined if not for personal interest of Lam herself and the energetic programming by staff over the past 12 months.

Some legislators have exploited the government's ambivalence, gaining political mileage by attacking the project. Lam's latest announcement puts the project on a much sounder footing, with stronger support from the Leung administration for the core facilities. But without any guaranteed future funding, the second phase of construction could be stuck in limbo.

Lam has also suggested that some future performing arts venues be privately funded. This seems an unlikely route for the Leung administration, which has an uneasy relationship with both Legco and property developers.

While the latest proposal to increase the site's density will not affect the park or cultural facilities, it will increase the bulk and height of the hotel, residential and commercial zoned areas.

These buildings are specifically built as a long-term funding source to operate the cultural facilities. Whether an application is made to the Town Planning Board to increase the site's plot ratio will hinge on the site's new funding requirements, and the new mixture of performance arts venues to be built in the second phase of construction - which all remain unknown.

Last year, the Town Planning Board approved a master plan which only allows the site to be served by underground roads and infrastructure facilities. Lam has now clarified that government will fully pay for these underground facilities, but will, again, need Legco-approved funding.

There are some other niggling issues. The proposed "great" park in the master plan is designated as "open space" by the Town Planning Board, but the building of Freespace and a modular arts venue is not allowed under this zoning designation.

The authority will argue that these buildings are "temporary". But this is debatable, and could be a future flashpoint if pursued. The one area of community consensus about district is that the site must contain a large urban park. Such a park needs plenty of open space, and these facilities could easily be relocated.

But one of the outcomes of Lam's announcement is the government may now propose a longer timeframe to develop the site - similar to the arts community's original demand for an organic approach.

This approach would provide a world-class museum, some smaller, but useful, performance venues, and the possibility of an enlarged and magnificent harbourside park - plus the flexibility for change in the future.

John Batten is president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong