Like most long established bureaucracies, the Hong Kong government has traditionally shown little enthusiasm for innovative or unconventional decisions. But the signs were there that a bold move might be on the cards when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced that the former police married quarters on Hollywood Road would become a centre for budding designers. And so it turned out when the government committee that vetted applicants to develop the prime site chose a little-known charity headed by three businessmen rather than a big property developer. Certainly the plans are forward- looking, so it's to be hoped the scheme remains true to its vision.
Those behind it don't have a track record in design. They have nonetheless put forward what appears to be a plausible proposal that would give innovators a means of sharing thoughts, putting ideas into practice, showing them to the public and building a brand. By partnering with the Design Centre, Polytechnic University, the Design Institute and the Vocational Training Council, the Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation will have experience, networks and expertise at its disposal. The 130 studios, galleries, artists-in-residence flats and shops and restaurants should make a thriving, vibrant community.
This isn't what would have been expected for so prominent a site so close to the plush shops of Central and the bars and restaurants of Lan Kwai Fong. More of the same would have been the most probable. One of the handful of big property developers that have shaped Hong Kong would have been involved and more likely than not created another shopping complex full of familiar stores. Authorities are to be applauded for their fresh approach.
That's not to say we shouldn't be cautious. Our government is driven by a development-for-profit mentality and that remains for the scheme. In its eyes, projects generally have to have a financial payback that covers costs and generates income. As it's putting up the HK$425 million development cost and leasing the site to the operator at a nominal rate for 10 years, renewable for another five, it expects compensation. The charity's bid centred on a HK$100 million donation that will serve as a seed fund.
Income to cover costs will be made from rent. The government is banking on bringing in HK$30 million during the lease, which it estimates will be half of the surplus. Rents will be set at close to market value and some studios will be discounted 30 per cent.
These figures don't jibe with the idea of creativity. They assume that most of the designers and artists will already have made a name for themselves; that's surely the only way that rents approaching those paid in Central can be stumped up. Innovation and making profits don't necessarily go hand in hand.
History also has to be considered. The quarters are also the location of the historic Central School, the foundations of which were discovered in an archaeological dig. Hong Kong's new-found interest in its past meant that the site had to be removed from the government's land sale list in 2007. Provision has to be made in the plans for display of the foundation stones and a museum.
What emerges from the two 59-year-old buildings will be a tell-tale marker of the government's own creativity. If it can foster a design hub, as it has promised, a new community-based development approach will have been tried and tested. Everything is to be gained by ensuring that it works.