Slicing into city's urban oasis
Although approved four years ago, the loss of part of Victoria Park to the planned Central-Wan Chai bypass is an unwelcome surprise
Enter Victoria Park from the Causeway Bay side and there is little sign of anything amiss; it's still the green refuge that has served Hong Kong well since the 1950s.
Walk towards Tin Hau and the sound of traffic slowly gives way to birdsong and the low hum of the remote-controlled craft in the popular model-boating lake. But get past the thwack of tennis balls on the well-used courts and the sounds, and sights, change.
Much of the northern and eastern part of the park is covered in hoardings. Heavy vehicles, machinery and workmen are a common sight alongside the children playing with their parents or domestic helpers, and the elderly tai-chi practitioners.
As he watches his children enjoy themselves in a playground, Henry Lim says he is unaware that the part of the park he is in will soon make way for a slip road. He paid little attention to a sign explaining the details of the project and the relocation of park facilities, including the playground his children love.
Lim, who lives nearby, is not the only local resident to be surprised by the sudden change from a place of leisure to a building site.
While the Highways Department says it has worked "very hard" to explain the details of the project to district councils and other interested parties, many were in shock when they learned that the slip road, linked to the massive Central-Wan Chai Bypass project, would cut through their cherished park.
Work on the 4.5 kilometre bypass was approved in 2009 and work in the park started in March. The road will link Tsing Fung Street in Causeway Bay to the 3.7 kilometre tunnel that will connect the new bypass to the existing Island East Corridor.
Besides the playground, the project will see two bowling greens, a nursery compound and a pavilion moved, while 350 trees will be dug up - 250 to be relocated elsewhere in the park, 40 moved elsewhere and the rest chopped down. Some 1,850 square metres of parkland will be lost forever.
Councillors consulted on the scheme say they were unaware that the slip road would run through the park.
In four district-council meeting papers and a minute that the department showed to the Post, there was no direct mention in text that the road would cut into the park. Rather, the papers said that facilities would have to be relocated and diagrams showed the road cutting into the park.
Eastern district councillor Jennifer Chow Kit-bing, who represents the Victoria Park constituency, said she had always thought that the slip road would be underground. "The diagrams are too technical for us to read," she said. "In the past, we only discussed more macro issues, not details like that."
Chow believed the relocation of the facilities, as discussed in the papers, would be temporary and last only while the tunnel was being built.
Lawrence Ho Kai-ming, chief engineer of the department, said the district council had been briefed a number of times about the project, although he acknowledged that "things could always have been done better".
"The plans have always shown that the slip road is there," he said. "We've tried very hard to get the message across."
In a meeting with concerned parties, highways officials said they had considered a more northerly route so the park would not be affected, but concluded that it would jeopardise traffic safety because it would involve a sharper turn.
Ho said: "We have chosen an alignment that has the least impact on the public."
In fact, since the project was announced in the 1990s as a part of a reclamation plan for Central and Wan Chai, it has gone through a number of changes.
The first plan required reclamation of about 12.7 hectares, but it was reduced to 5.7 hectares after it was decided that part of the project was to be built in tunnel form. The reduction was the result of a 2003 judicial-review request by anti-reclamation activists, who said the plan was against the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance.
The case went to the Court of Final Appeal, which in January 2004 ruled that the presumption against reclamation in the ordinance could only be overcome by establishing "an overriding public need".
One organisation that is already feeling the effects of the new road is the Hong Kong Lawn Bowls Association. One of the two public bowling greens in the park will be closed until 2016, at a time when there is already a shortage of public facilities.
Such is the shortage that Claudius Lam, the club's vice-president, says he does not mind that the two greens in the park will be right by the new road.
"We have 37 clubs, and most of them use public greens," he said. "The demand is great.
"Theoretically, of course, doing sports in a place with clean air is better, but what can we do?"
The department said two-metre-high structures would separate the road from the park, so the impact on noise and air quality would be reduced.
Video: What the construction work in Victoria Park looks like
Others are more uncomfortable with the changes to their park.
Dirk Jackson, 39, visits the park at least twice a week with his two-year-old son for its abundance of space and trees.
"I knew the highway construction was under way, but I thought the area where the boats were [the typhoon shelter] would be affected, instead of the park," he said.
Jackson was not happy about the idea that a highway would be so close to where they enjoyed themselves.
"I don't understand why they have to do it. Hong Kong is so notorious for its reclamation anyway, so why don't they just build it on reclaimed land?" he asked.
But Lim says he can live with sacrificing some of the park - as long as the highway actually improves traffic conditions, as the government has promised.
"It would be the worst if traffic congestion still exists with the bypass, and then at the same time we lost something in the park. But there's just too little information for us to judge," he said.