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Hong Kong wheel row sparks debate on long term plans for Central Harbourfront

As the fate of the Observation Wheel is still uncertain, questions have been raised about what will happen to the area after 2020

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 11:19pm

The recent row between the ­incumbent and future operators of the Hong Kong Observation Wheel has raised questions over the fate of the popular tourist ­attraction and the long-term plans for the Central Harbourfront.

The city’s Ferris wheel, which opened in Central in late 2014, came under the spotlight after it abruptly closed when the contract of operator Swiss AEX expired on August 28.

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Swiss AEX said it could begin dismantling the wheel tomorrow, but a Harbourfront Commission member and other officials have said that the wheel should be kept.

“The wheel has enriched the landscape and skyline of Hong Kong Island ... it is appropriate with the adjoining land, designed for events,” said architect Ivan Ho Man-yiu, who is part of the commission.

Now that the three-year lease has ended, the government is set to hand over the land to another operator, The Entertainment ­Corporation.

The area has been designated by the government for short-term use until 2020, before carrying out planning for longer term use.

The idea of erecting a wheel at the Central Harbourfront was first raised in 2011 when a UK company, Great City Attractions, which operated wheels in several cities, approached the Hong Kong government with the proposal.

“As it would be operated on a short-term lease and a company was willing to get involved ... we thought it would be worth it to give it a try,” said Ho.

Chan Hok-fung, who heads a working group on the harbourfront under the Central and Western District Council, revealed that there were other proposals before the plan for the wheel materialised. They included putting an old Star Ferry at the site and turning it into a restaurant; or placing a gigantic anchor from one of the world’s largest vessels at the site.

However, there were problems with both of those proposals, Ho said. “For the Star Ferry proposal, the maintenance cost would be huge if a ferry boat was placed on land and not on sea.

“The anchor was no different with any other piece of sculpture in an urban space.”

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He said the land did not have to specifically cater for the needs of tourists, but should appeal to all members of the public.

It is now unclear whether there will still be a wheel on the Central Harbourfront site after 2020.

Ho said the reason that the long-term plans for the site are unclear is that the city does not yet have a Harbourfront Authority. Such a body was first proposed in the 2013 policy address by the former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, but was later deemed too “premature” to carry out, according to Leung’s last policy address in January this year.

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“[Short-term tenancy] has been set for three years as we have been waiting for a proper development plan for the Central ­Harbourfront,” said Ho, who disagreed that it was too early to set up an authority.

“The delay in the Harbourfront Authority delays investment in the waterfront, therefore there is the continuing use for temporary facilities,” said Paul Zimmerman, another member of the commission.

While the current city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to push for the establishment of the authority, which is intended to develop the harbour­front in a holistic manner, no clear timetable has been set out.

Ho said establishment of the authority should begin as soon as possible, as it could be a lengthy process.

Members of different sectors were not opposed to keeping the wheel as a permanent fixture.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing supported keeping it, saying it has become an icon of the district. “It is an attraction which visitors can be involved in and take photos [of],” Yiu said.