In a city where real estate is prized, the almost abandoned Central Market stands out. It has been that way since the 200 stalls in the 72-year-old building were closed eight years ago so that the site could be auctioned for redevelopment. Those plans were set aside amid protests about the loss of Hong Kong's past to developers and, apart from a corridor lined by a handful of shops and bridges linking it to the Mid-Levels escalator and Hang Seng Bank headquarters, it is empty. With the government finally moving to make it useful again, much care and thought has to be put into maximising its potential.
The Urban Renewal Authority, which is in charge of the project, says it wants as inclusive as possible an approach. Four designs with extremely different outlooks for the building have been unveiled. A public forum will be held on Sunday at which the concepts will be explained and then there will be an exhibition at which 4,000 questionnaires will be handed out. We are being asked whether we want the market to retain most of its present features or be redesigned.
All manner of innovative features have been put forward by the contracted architects. There is variously a swimming pool, gym, a greenhouse for butterflies, performance spaces and, in the most conservative of the proposals, a return of the market stalls in their original place. Each rightly has at its heart the idea of creating an oasis in the middle of Central. This is as it should be. The building has been preserved by public demand and it has to be as much as possible turned over to the community.
This is an area in which the authority does not have the best of track records. Its projects have often treated our past as secondary to generating income. There are exceptions - The Pawn in Wan Chai among them. With Central Market, though, it has the opportunity to prove its worth to Hong Kong. By truly making the building an oasis for all to enjoy, while keeping the character of the historic structure, a genuine asset will be created from what has for far too long been an empty shell.