Lights out for Avenue of Stars as iconic Hong Kong site set to shut down for three years despite public outcry
Questions mount over the lack of competitive bidding for TST harbourfront extension project
Hong Kong's famous Avenue of Stars is facing closure for up to three years after town planners conditionally endorsed a plan to expand the tourist attraction in Tsim Sha Tsui despite overwhelming public opposition.
The Town Planning Board yesterday gave the green light to an application, submitted jointly by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Sustainable Foundation Company, a non-profit venture set up under New World Development for the controversial project.
The 440-metre stretch of prime harbourfront, opened in 2004, will be extended eastward to incorporate the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade that ends in Hung Hom.
A food hub, a film gallery and a performance venue will be built on the extended section, which is a much quieter area. Dining facilities will be added in Salisbury Garden, outside the Museum of Art. The development work will mean the promenade has to be closed to public access for up to three years, although the board has advised the developer to shorten this period.
New World, which was granted the right to operate the avenue for 20 years in 2004 and is now seeking to extend the period, has promised to cover all the revitalisation costs. But many, including some board members, have questioned the lack of a competitive bidding process in letting it handle the project.
"Some opponents have queried: 'Why was the project handed to New World? Is it a government-business collusion? Is it a transfer of benefit?'" said board member Clarence Leung Wang-ching.
Another member, Wilton Fok Wai-tung, asked: "Why is it New World but not any other developer?"
But the Town Planning Board's power is limited to land use, and it has no say over who gets to manage the site.
"How the applicant is going to find its partner is outside of our scope of approval," said director of planning Ling Kar-kan, who chaired the meeting.
"The board supports the proposal because it will attract many visitors to the promenade," was how board spokeswoman Lily Yam Ya-may explained the decision.
"The government is not transferring one single inch of land or its management right to a private company," deputy chief of the leisure department Louis Ng Chi-wa added.
The plan was passed amid controversy following a three-week public consultation last month, with 328 out of 348 submissions opposing it.
Some complained about the three-year closure of the promenade which would deny people access to a public area.
Businesses and property owners said the closure would put off customers and their harbour views would be blocked.
Among the latter group of opponents were the Tsim Sha Tsui East Property Developers Association, Empire Centre and Kowloon Shangri-La hotel. The hotel is part of the Kerry Group, the controlling shareholder of the SCMP Group, which publishes the South China Morning Post.
Yesterday's approval came with 10 conditions, a key one stipulating the proposed film gallery must not narrow the 7.5-metre wide passageway outside. This means the developer will have to change its original design of the structure, which would block 2.5 metres of the walkway.
Paul Zimmerman, co-founder of Designing Hong Kong, said New World stood to benefit from the deal. The proposed eateries were of small scale and might not generate much income on their own, he pointed out.
But New World, as the biggest commercial landlord in the area, could benefit from the plan by attracting many more people there. The proposed new facilities are near its New World Centre, a HK$18 billion project still under construction that would feature a hotel, a mall and offices.
“Although the management is a non-profit company, New World makes money by making it a great environment,” Zimmerman said.
A senior government official insisted developer New World Development would not directly profit from the project. But critics said the deal amounted to government collusion that would clearly benefit the developer without a competitive bidding process.
Revenue generated from a new restaurant hub, a film industry exhibition centre and a performance venue New World wants to build along the Avenue of Stars would fund the promenade’s operations, said Dr Louis Ng Chi-wa, deputy director of the Leisure and Culture Services Department.
He said once the government takes over management of the development, it will pocket any surplus income from those businesses. New World, which is a major business owner in the area, hopes to increase the amount of foot traffic by as much as 10 times.
Ng, who was speaking on RTHK radio, said the government would remain the owner of the land and hold the ultimate management right for the new development.
Engineer Albert Lai Kwong-tak, of the Professional Commons, opposed the development, saying it violated established procedures by not going through a tender process and public consultation.
He said the project would also breach a pledge by the government not to encourage private companies to manage public space.
But Ng said the plan was not required to go through tendering as it did not involve the sale of any land.
In their joint application to the board, the department and New World estimated that pedestrian flow on the now-quiet eastern section of the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade would increase by more than 10 at peak hours after the construction of more attractions - from the present 200 people per hour to 3,000.
That projection came from Michelle Yuen Man-sin, the Planning Department’s senior town planner for Yau Tsim Mong district, as she answered questions from planning board’s metro planning committee members this morning.