Left field: Sports hub change deterred, but official explanation murky

Plans to move proposed sports hub to Lantau were foolish to start with ... and the official reason for it wasn't honest, either

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 3:24am

The U-turn came as quickly as the initial move to test the waters on how the sports community would react to plans to shelve the sports hub at Kai Tak and move it to the boondocks in North Lantau.

Just a few days after revealing that plans were on the cards for a major rethink on the HK$19 billion project, the government backtracked and said the proposed sports hub would go ahead. Officials had put their toes into the water and it was boiling hot - an angry sports community threatening to take to the streets in protest at their dream being destroyed.

While we welcome the government saying unequivocally that it would press ahead with the sports hub, it must also be censured for causing this hullabaloo in the first place.

It was not housing, but rather a new central business district (CBD) that the government wanted to build on the 20 hectares of land allocated for the sports hub at Kai Tak, one highly placed source revealed.

Let's take a close look at the evidence for this. It began last weekend with Michael Choi Ngai-min, a top government adviser, calling for the proposed Kai Tak sports hub to be shelved and for public housing to be built on the prime site instead.

Choi is old buddies with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying - both worked as consultants for a real estate company in the 1980s - and it is believed his views must have had their genesis in government policy. Yes, more public housing is needed, but if you believed that was the true reason for this shocking proposal, you were sadly mistaken. Instead, the true intent was to put up glitzy high-rise office blocks, according to the source.

Hong Kong is in desperate need of a new CBD. Our existing district will have outgrown its straitjacket in the next 30 years and the government is looking for another prime site. Enter Kai Tak. It is a greenfield site - there are no existing buildings that need to be torn down, etc - and, most importantly, located on the waterfront.

The property developers have been drooling over this site for some time. They have been agitating behind the scenes for the government to renege on its promise to build a 50,000-seater stadium with a retractable roof, plus two other ancillary facilities including a 5,000-seat indoor stadium.

Now the big bad wolf could not say openly that it wanted to gobble up Kai Tak. So instead they came out with this sorry excuse that the sports hub would have to make way for public housing. Once the initial storm passed, the government would have gradually changed its policy and allocated some of the 20 hectares of land for a CBD too, the source said.

But like all well-laid plans, government officials didn't account for the firestorm of reaction they faced, with leading officials in the sports community threatening a protest march. Taken aback, the government has now reiterated its pledge to go ahead with the sports hub at Kai Tak.

The argument that Hong Kong is in need of more public housing might be right. But that can be built at Sunny Bay on Lantau, the area which was mooted as an alternative site for the Kai Tak sports hub. How absurd it would be to move a major sporting facility from a prime area into the boondocks. Yes, the government might build an MTR line and provide buses, but would the facility be used 365 days of the year, like if it was right in town, where the public can use it for recreational purposes, too?

The previous administration knew the need for a new CBD was urgent. Why didn't it allocate another premium site - in Kowloon West - for it? The reason was because the then chief secretary, Henry Tang Ying-yen, was a strong proponent of a Cultural Centre to be built on that site. His wishes were granted.

But now that a fresh commitment has been made, and once the egg is wiped off the face, the government must lose no time and start work on the sports hub immediately. A financing model is apparently ready and the bulldozers and cranes must move in right away. As Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, pointed out, Hong Kong has always been known as a can-do place. Let's hope that holds true for the Kai Tak sports hub.