PLA dock rezoning plan leaves too may questions unanswered

The government has bungled the rezoning of the army's dock in Central. Some clarity is required

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 5:27am

The government has left many questions unanswered in its insistence on rezoning the People's Liberation Army berth on the Central waterfront as a military site, a change from its previous status as public open space.

There is little public trust in the government and in mainland authorities on the issue, and many Hongkongers worry that the berth - at a prime site on the new waterfront - will be far less accessible after it is designated for military use. This is despite the government's reassurances that the PLA's Hong Kong Garrison will open the dock area to the public when it is not using it.

The disconnect between the public and the government would have been less severe if the government had addressed questions raised by the Harbourfront Commission three months ago.

At the commission's meeting on February 21, commission chairman Nicholas Brooke repeatedly asked the government representative to record officially on legal planning documents that the public has the right to enjoy the berth area when it is not being used by the military.

"There is a very clear concern all around this room about public access and public enjoyment, and … that needs to be officially recorded," he said. "Whether it's recorded in the zoning plan or elsewhere, it needs to be officially recorded."

The commission's members also expressed concerns over the design and height of facilities at the dock.

Architect Peter Cookson Smith from the Institute of Urban Design described four concrete buildings measuring 8.7 metres in height and designed to accommodate public utilities and electronic folding gates as "a disgrace on the most prominent part of the waterfront".

Other members said the government should specify the height of the buildings in the zoning plan, rather than leaving open the option of a maximum 10-metre height, to prevent any future construction blocking the harbour view.

The government representative said merely that public access when the berth is in use will be via an emergency vehicle entry point behind the berth, adding that the government would work out details of opening hours and other access issues with the army. However, it's hard to imagine that an emergency road will be a big public attraction.

Commission members did the government a big favour when they refrained from challenging the rezoning decision at their meeting. They were told that they should not "rewrite the history" of the joint agreement signed by Britain and Beijing, which specified that a waterfront of 150 metres would be left free close to the central barracks after 1997.

But a source close to the government said the PLA could not do more as its pledge to maintain access had already been documented in a paper submitted to the Town Planning Board, even though that pledge was not legally binding.

Harbour conservationist Winston Chu Ka-son said, however, that the agreement did not specify that the site should be "handed over" to the army, like other military facilities, as the dock had not been built at that time.

Commission member Patrick Lau Hing-tat, a landscape architect helping the Qingdao government redesign a waterfront and park featuring military sites, said he had discussed the redesign with the PLA. But in this case the Hong Kong government mainly relied on the Security Bureau to liaise with the army.

However, as the Town Planning Board has received almost 10,000 submissions opposing the rezoning plan this month, the government might be well advised to sit up and listen to the public's concerns.