Hong Kong property

Can Hong Kong’s Central harbourfront be more than prime real estate?

The city’s most valuable site is estimated to sell for US$10.2b, but yet no user-friendly plan has been put forward to turn the harbourfront into a place to rival Sydney or Stockholm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 10:16pm

Kacey Wong was sitting on a bench along the Central harbourfront watching a TV crew turn a sculpture into the set of a chat show. To his right were installations by Antony Gormley, Yayoi Kusama and other world-renowned sculptor-artists. Wong’s own works were to the left: a collection of six wireframe sculptures called Asteroids and Comets. 

“It’s a real sculpture park – large objects on grass with blue skies,” he said. “That’s rare in Hong Kong.” 

The Harbour Arts Sculpture Park lasted for seven weeks this year (February 22 to April 11) as an Arts Centre initiative to bring top-notch public art to the shores of Victoria Harbour – an unprecedented exhibition in a city where quality public art is still rare. The space itself is rare, too. Less than 40 per cent of the harbourfront is even accessible to the public, and this particular spot – reclaimed from the sea just over a decade ago – retains the feeling of an interstice: a leftover patch of earth caught between the towers of Central and the busy waters of the harbour. 

Being here on the harbourfront, with the government’s daunting headquarters in the background and gleaming skyscrapers beyond that, it was making him think of the origins of Hong Kong. There has never been a sculpture park on the waterfront before because, until now, there has never been space for it. “Every problem in Hong Kong is a property problem,” he said. 

Just past Wong’s sculptures, crowds were assembling for the latest edition of Art Central, which takes place in a temporary event space that has played host to music festivals and carnivals. A Ferris wheel rises in the background, next to a weedy vacant lot, and a bit further along the water, there are ferry piers, a bus terminus and the entrance to a new underground expressway that will bypass Central and Wan Chai. It’s a collection of urban detritus – asteroids and comets left over from the cosmic churn of Hong Kong property development. 

Jewel in the crown

And it’s Hong Kong’s last, best hope for a great waterfront to rival those of Stockholm, Sydney and San Francisco. 

“The Central harbourfront is the jewel in the crown,” says Nicholas Brooke, chairman of the Harbourfront Commission, which advises the government. Although less than half of the of the harbour’s 73-kilometre shoreline is accessible to the public, he expects that will soon change, as 50 of those kilometres are controlled by the government. “Because of that we have the opportunity to do something very special.”

Just how special it will be depends entirely on the government. Its official plan promises that “the new Central harbourfront will be the centrepiece of Hong Kong – a world-class showpiece at the heart of our city which is vibrant, attractive, accessible and symbolic.” There is little evidence of that happening today, more than a decade after the plan was unveiled. The Central harbourfront is being chopped into parcels for eventual tender, sale and development. It’s business as usual – but many observers say that isn’t good enough. 

“We’re losing major opportunities,” says veteran urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith, who helped plan the Sha Tin and Tai Po New Towns in the 1970s. “One of our problems in Hong Kong is we don’t have enough examples of good urban design. We don’t have the sort of dynamic waterfront activity that many cities do. If we want these things to happen in Hong Kong, we have to change the way we go about urban planning and design.”

The harbour is where it all begins

Hong Kong wouldn’t exist without its harbour. It’s the only reason the British coveted a rocky island with few natural resources aside from incense wood, granite and fish. And it’s the reason Hong Kong eventually became one of the world’s great commercial cities, a trading hub built on the flow of people, goods and money – a history that begins in Central.

The Central harbourfront is the jewel in the crown
Nicholas Brooke, Harbourfront Commission

“The Central waterfront has always been the place where Hong Kong developed its identity as a city,” says architect Christopher Law. When the British first landed at Possession Point in 1841, water washed up against a bluff below present-day Hollywood Road (the sudden turn on Queen’s Road West marks the spot). Bit by bit, the shoreline was extended by dumping soil into the water. Each phase of land reclamation gave the city a newer and even more impressive layer. First there was Queen’s Road, then Des Voeux Road and finally, for a long time, Connaught Road, all of which took turns as the “Central Praya” – a Portuguese word for beach that was borrowed and adapted by the British. 

If you look at a photo of the Central Praya in 1925, you’ll see many of the city’s most important structures – ornate stone buildings with generous balconies and verandas. There was the Queen’s Building, General Post Office, Hong Kong Club, Central Fire Station, Supreme Court. In front of them was the Queen’s Pier, with grand neoclassical arches that received princes and paupers alike, and the Star Ferry Pier, capped by a frilly Victorian clock tower. A constant churn of boats brought waves of people ashore throughout the day. The city and harbour were one and the same. 

Watch the history of Hong Kong unfold

After World War II, a few small reclamation projects added new land here and there. A pier on the west side of Central was occupied by a night market known as the Poor Man’s Nightclub. Stalls offered carnival games and hearty wok-fired dishes like clams in spicy black bean sauce. “It was affordable, a place where you could spend time, eat something and loiter around in the sea breeze,” says urban planner Pong Yuen-yee. 

Just across Connaught Road from Statue Square, land was created for Edinburgh Place, a cluster of whitewashed civic structures with a breezy modernist design. City Hall offered a public library with views over the harbour, with a theatre and dim sum palace next door. A new iteration of the Queen’s Pier opened onto a small plaza. Next door, a rebuilt Star Ferry Pier traded its Victorian clock tower in for a stylishly minimalist pillar painted in white and green. 

We don’t have the sort of dynamic waterfront activity that many cities do
Peter Cookson-Smith, urban planner

Christopher Law says his first clear memory of the harbour was when he passed by Edinburgh Place on a bus when he was six years old. As it rumbled past the cenotaph, City Hall and the Star Ferry Pier, Law felt something stir in him. “I knew nothing of city planning at the time. But I was gobsmacked.”

Saving the harbour

With every new bit of land reclamation, however, that soul-stirring view grew more detached from the city. By the time 20 hectares of harbourfront were reclaimed for the Hong Kong Station and the International Finance Centre in the early 1990s, there was a tangible fear that Hong Kong might one day lose its harbour. Working with activist Winston Chu, lawmaker Christine Loh successfully passed the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which prohibits future land reclamation in the harbour unless the government can prove there is an overriding public need. That put the brakes on wild proposals to fill in the whole of Kowloon Bay or the space between Kennedy Town and Green Island, but one last bit of reclamation managed to squeak through before the ordinance came into effect in 1996.

That final reclamation project, which stretches from the IFC all the way east to Causeway Bay, makes room for the Central-Wan Chai bypass and the proposed North Island Line (which is to run along Hong Kong Island’s north shore, in parallel with the current line) of the MTR. But there was never clear idea of what to do with all the new space on top. People feared it would simply be sold to the highest bidder and developed into a forest of high-rises. 

Between 2006 and 2007, the reclamation laid waste to landmarks like Queen’s Pier and the Star Ferry Pier, which ignited a passionate and surprising youth movement to save them. For the first time, it seemed like Hong Kong was thinking critically about the future of its harbour.

“If this wasn’t the Central harbourfront, if it was any other part of the harbour, it wouldn’t have received as much attention,” says Pong. “We have always taken the harbour for granted. We didn’t treasure it. So we have to give credit to Paul Zimmerman. For more than 10 years he has been advocating to give people access to the harbourfront.” 

Zimmerman moved to Hong Kong in 1984 to work for a Dutch bank. But when the future of the Central harbourfront was thrown into question, he made his first moves into community activism. “I’m from Rotterdam,” he says. “We have a lot of waterfront and it’s where a lot of things happen.” But the opposite was true in Hong Kong: with every passing year, fewer and fewer things seemed to be taking place next to the harbour. Hong Kong was neglecting the very thing that had brought it to life.

The Central waterfront has always been the place where Hong Kong developed its identity as a city
Christopher Law, architect

In 2002, Zimmerman got together with Christine Loh and businessman-turned-environmental activist Markus Shaw to start Designing Hong Kong. Its first campaign was to lobby for a harbourfront dedicated to the public, with space to do all of the things you can’t in the city’s jam-packed streets: have a picnic, fly a kite, listen to live music, have dinner outdoors. “We are quite possibly the richest city that has ever existed – what are we leaving behind for posterity?” asks Shaw. The harbourfront could be one answer.

The harbour’s future

The government got to work drafting a master plan. It was unveiled in 2006. The reclamation was divided into eight sites. Site 4 was designed as a space for the demolished Star Ferry clock tower to be rebuilt. The Queen’s Pier is supposed to return to Site 8. Site 7 is the large open space that has been temporarily leased to an events company, which plays host to festivals like Clockenflap and the AIA Carnival. Site 3, which spans the area from the General Post Office to the present-day Star Ferry Pier, will be developed with low-rise buildings containing 150,000 square metres of office and retail, plus landscaped outdoor areas. 

In response to this article, the government issued a statement saying that a design study was completed in 2011 after “extensive public engagement exercises”, and that all the design requirements have been written into a planning brief endorsed by the Town Planning Board in January 2017. For Site 3, any future developer will have to submit a master plan based on the planning brief for the TPB’s approval. This, the government says, provides “adequate safeguards to ensure that the UDS (urban design study) recommended design, which has gained broad community support, will be fully implemented”. 

Owing to the complexity of the site, the government says it is unwilling to consider another means of selling the land to a developer. “We should be mindful of the impact on market bidding interest if a more complicated disposal process is adopted … our intention is to dispose of Site 3 through normal land tender arrangement.” 

If this wasn’t the Central harbourfront, if it was any other part of the harbour, it wouldn’t have received as much attention
Pong Yuen-yee, urban planner

With regard to the temporary event spaces in the other sites of the Central harbourfront area, the government offered no timetable for development, or to say what would be done other than create “waterfront related commercial and leisure uses and a 10-hectare waterfront promenade cum urban park”. 

“It’s really rather disappointing,” says Peter Cookson-Smith. “[The plan] is generally insufficient to safeguard the public interest and uphold the standard of design we expect to see along the harbourfront.” 

Site 3, a bone of contention

Cookson-Smith, along with a host of other land-use experts interviewed for this story, says the problem is that the government is treating the Central harbourfront like any other piece of land in Hong Kong. Site 3 is a particular bone of contention. It will be sold for an estimated HK$80 billion (US$10.2 billion), with no more than the usual conditions placed on its development. Government planners designate a maximum gross floor area and impose minimum conditions for greenery and public space. Beyond that, what happens to the land is up to the developer. Unlike many other cities around the world, Hong Kong has no design guidelines and nothing to ensure what is built will actually be high quality, remarkable or interesting.

“You end up with an envelope and the specification of what to put inside that envelope, and design goes out the window,” says Cookson-Smith. “Do you want cafes and all that? How do pedestrians relate to the public realm? All of these things should be in the design brief. Right now, a developer could simply create a glass box.”

The reason for this laissez-faire approach goes back to the way the Hong Kong government has always made its money – not through taxation, but through land sales. The more conditions the government puts on a land sale, the harder it is to sell, at least according to theory. “It was expedient to put out sites with the minimum possible issues associated with them,” says Cookson-Smith.

That practice continues even with a site as prominent as the Central harbourfront. The reason may simply be bureaucratic inertia; this is how we do things because this is the way things have always been done. But Michele Weldon, programme director of urban issues think tank Civic Exchange, says the government’s enormous fiscal reserves – about HK$1.8 trillion, according to one estimate – suggest there isn’t any need to sell off the harbourfront to the highest bidder. “This kind of space is invaluable,” she says. “You can’t put a dollar figure on it.”

Nicholas Brooke says it’s not too late to completely rethink the government’s plans. “The government say they can’t move away from the normal tender method because they might get a smaller cheque,” he says. “Well, tough. We have to move away from a dollar-driven approach.” 

There are other problems, too. Weldon stresses how important it is that the harbourfront be accessible by foot: “Walking is how we make sense of the city,” she says. But roads are usually the first things planned on any new piece of land in Hong Kong, and this was the case for the Central harbourfront, which is already separated by Central by the dual carriageway of Lung Wo Road. “The Transport Department still thinks it is their job to get as much road space as possible for vehicular traffic – and vehicular traffic always gets priority,” says Pong. It’s hard to build an accessible harbourfront when you need to cross a motorway to get there. 

Aside from the Transport Department, there are nine different government departments involved in managing Hong Kong’s urban space, which creates many bureaucratic obstacles to shaking things up. “The civil service is prescriptive and uncomfortable with subjective judgment,” says Brooke. 

One potential workaround is to create a body that can transcend the usual way of doing things – something that has happened across the harbour in Kowloon, where the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is free to manage its parks, public spaces and cultural venues as it sees fit. The Harbourfront Commission’s members have long been lobbying for the government to turn the commission into an authority that would have serious regulatory powers, and one of the most enthusiastic proponents of that plan was Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who served as Secretary for Development. “This was almost her baby,” says Brooke. But since becoming Chief Executive, plans to establish a Harbourfront Authority have fallen by the wayside. “She has backtracked in quite a major way.”

One possible reason the government has slowed its harbourfront development plans lies with a current occupant of the harbour, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

Right in front of April’s pop-up sculpture park site, in a prime location along the waterfront promenade, a strange cluster of buildings sits beneath a rust-stained metal arch. The entire compound is fenced off and overgrown with weeds. This is a berth for the PLA, whose Hong Kong garrison is headquartered in the former Prince of Wales Building that towers over the harbourfront. In 2014, the government agreed to transfer control over the berth to the PLA, despite 10,000 letters of objection from citizens who were worried that there was no guaranteed public access.

We should be mindful of the impact on market bidding interest if a more complicated disposal process is adopted … our intention is to dispose of Site 3 through normal land tender arrangement
Hong Kong government 

Designing Hong Kong is suing the government to stop the transfer, and until the case is resolved, the site continues to rot away. It’s an apt symbol for the harbourfront as a whole: with no tender date confirmed for Site 3 and the creation of the Harbourfront Authority indefinitely postponed, it’s hard to say what is in store for Hong Kong’s most prominent piece of land. 

Future of the harbourfront

But there are no shortage of visions. Mike Hill, one of the founders of the independent music festival Clockenflap, says the success of the privately-managed event space that has temporarily occupied a large portion of the harbourfront shows there is a need for what he calls a “venue park” – a green space that is open to the public most of the time, but can be booked out for outdoor festivals and corporate events. At the moment, there is no dedicated event venue in the official plans. “You can see there are events there week after week, and if that space wasn’t there, where would all those events go – Taste, Clockenflap, Formula E, Cirque du Soleil?” he asks. “They would probably disappear.”

In 2015, local architecture firm Lead 8 came up with an ambitious vision called HarbourLoop that calls for the entire harbourfront to be linked up by a recreational corridor, punctuated by nodes of commercial and community facilities that would draw people to the water. “In between the nodes, there is cycling and walking but also flexible areas,” says designer Ian Ralph. 

This kind of space is invaluable … You can’t put a dollar figure on it.
Michele Weldon, Civic Exchange

Another local firm, Benoy, unveiled a series of three concept plans for one of those nodes – Site 3. One of the plans calls for a series of terraces that step down from an office and retail complex towards the waterfront; another calls for a network of small laneways and buildings along the water. It’s a fine-grained approach lauded by both Paul Zimmerman and Peter Cookson-Smith. “It’s a pretty good idea – and that’s just one design. Can you imagine if you had a competition?” says Zimmerman. So far, there is no competition on the horizon for Site 3 and no clear vision for the future of the harbourfront. 

Meanwhile, one of the world’s most valuable pieces of real estate sits idle.

(This article is published in the May issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)