On Christmas Eve, the government wrapped up the second phase of a proposed Harbourfront Authority initiative which would oversee the development of Hong Kong’s 73-km shoreline.
Mary Ann Benitez examines what’s next for the Fragrant Harbour
By Mary Ann Benitez*
Just next to Victoria Harbour smack in the northern fringes of the financial district a Great European Carnival and the Observation Wheel compete for dollars from thrill-seeking Hongkongers.
The space is called the New Harbourfront in Central, a reclaimed chunk of the iconic harbour for which Hong Kong has been named.
The AIA-sponsored carnival runs until February 22 with the organiser hoping to attract a million visitors, while the big Wheel to date has not created the buzz that London Eye has generated for the UK.
But concern groups are saying such entertainment facilities are not really what they want from the 73-kilometer harbourfront.
On December 24, the Harbourfront Commission and the Development Bureau concluded its phase 2 consultation for the proposed Harbourfront Authority (HFA). The three-month public engagement exercise was launched on
September 25 to gauge public opinion on the proposed detailed framework for the HFA.
The HFA will adopt an ‘incremental land allocation and development strategy’, with the plan calling for the government to inject a dedicated fund to cover the capital costs of developing designated sites.
Harbourfront Commission chairman Nicholas Brooke said that the priority of the HFA when it is established should be given to sites that are ripe for development so that it can capitalise on its “creativity and flexibility”.
The HFA will directly develop and manage 12 sites totalling 34 hectares on newly reclaimed land over the next decade. These are the New Central harbourfront, Wanchai-North Point harbourfront, reclaimed land in Causeway Bay, a waterfront park in Quarry Bay, a promenade in Kwun Tong and a new public space abutting the Hung Hom ferry pier.
“The HFA may seek the Legislative Council’s approval to draw resources from the dedicated fund when a project is ready for implementation”, he added.
The Authority could encourage activities on the waterfront, which are not welcomed however, such as alfresco dining, cycling and street performances. It is envisaged that the Authority would function as a ‘one-stop shop’ to reflect public demand for interaction with the harbour. It will eventually take responsibility for all the sites lining Hong Kong’s picture postcard waterway.
The Chairman of the Harbourfront Commission’s Core Group for Public Engagement, Vincent Ng, said, “We propose that the HFA should have three major functions, which are governance and management, advisory and advocacy, and executive functions”.
The 20-member board and a team of civil servants will be seconded to it to form a “dedicated” government team to support its operation while “suitable talent” from the private sector can also be recruited to assist the work of the team.
The Harbourfront Commission should be disbanded upon the establishment of the HFA “to avoid confusion or the perception of multi-layering”, advocates Ng.
The HFA will assume responsibility for the current advisory and advocacy role of the Commission in relation to Victoria Harbourfront.
“Even though we have put forth a proposal for public consultation, it doesn’t mean that we have already got the perfect answer for all the questions arising from the harbourfront management”, Ng said.
A 150-metre People’s Liberation Army berth on the new Central waterfront will be excluded from the HKFA’s ambit even though the government has pledged that the site will be open to the public when it is not used by the military.
A judicial review has been launched by pressure group Designing Hong Kong on the berth, which was rezoned for military use last February.
The Chairman of think tank Land Watch and former lawmaker, Lee Wing-tat, has told Hong Kong media, “The PLA pier will become a focus of tension for the new Authority. Should it allow students to stage class boycotts there?”
Brooke maintains that the HKFA can create its own by-laws or regulatory framework “for management, maintenance and operation of its waterfront sites. It could allow alfresco dining”.
Two months into the consultation exercise, Brooke told The Standard in November that the response to the idea of an Authority has so far been positive.
“We’ve spoken to district councils, chambers, professions and interest groups. The feedback has been that we could be more ambitious. It reflects the views of the community. And there’s a degree of impatience from people, which I completely understand”, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Development Bureau told Macau Business that the government has conducted 19 briefings or forums for the public, Legislative Council, District Councils, professional bodies and business chambers with over 450 attendees.
There were 21 written submissions and 142 completed questionnaires as of December 23, a day before the close of the engagement exercise.
“We have engaged the Social Sciences Research Centre of the University of Hong Kong to conduct an independent analysis of all the public views received during the Phase II Public Engagement Exercise”, the spokeswoman said.
All the written comments received will be uploaded to the dedicated website (www.hfc.org.hk/hape) this month.
“The HKU is also expected to complete its report in the first quarter of 2015. HKU’s report will also be made publicly available upon its completion”, she said. “Taking into account the views received, the Harbourfront Commission and the government will consider the way forward after the completion of Phase II PE”.
Paul Zimmerman, District Councillor for Pokfulam and a member of the Harbourfront Commission, told Macau Business, “It’s time for government to start spending money on world class design and management of our waterfronts. And not just Victoria Harbour. Surely the residents of Aberdeen, Ap Lei Chau, Tseung Kwan O and Shatin have the same aspirations for their waterfronts”.
Zimmerman, who is also CEO of Designing HongKong, said the consultation digest and response form fail to address key concerns.
“These include a lack of oversight over the harbour as a whole, the lack of advisory powers over government departments, a lack of legitimacy in land allocation, bias towards commercial operations, and a loss of the public voice on the Board”, he said, maintaining that Designing Hong Kong has been calling since 2004 for an authority to create world class waterfronts.
“Now the shortcomings need to be resolved before the community and legislators support the proposal”, he said.
Zimmerman said the vesting of land should be the last not the first tool in enhancing the waterfront sites.
“To start, we need a strategic plan for Victoria Harbour and its 75km waterfront to justify the location of water-dependent land uses – especially the ones nobody wants: pumping stations, sewage plants, waste transfer stations, concrete batching plants, fish and wholesale markets, container and oil terminals, cargo working areas, passenger piers and landings, water sports centres, fuel and water supply stations, police, Customs, marine department and fire stations”, he said.
“Next, the Authority must develop waterfront plans for each district along Victoria Harbour, identifying land and water-based activities and facilities which the local communities want”.
He has also completed the 10-point questionnaire.
He told Macau Business that the Harbourfront Authority should have no commercial objectives, and that its remit is to implement and deliver harbourfronts agreed with the community.
“Secondly, HFA should be responsible for planning the entire harbourfront and associated marine uses”, he said.
Its functions should cover not only overseeing the development of the entire harbourfront and the management of allocated sites or facilities but also manage associated marine uses.
The first sites to be overseen by the Harbourfront Authority should be the “simple promenades to build up capacity” including the promenades of the Central Ferry Piers, Kwun Tong, Quarry Bay, Tsing Yi, Tsuen Wan and Yau Tong. Its planning function should not be limited to the allocated sites.
Zimmerman said the Authority should receive annual subvention for its operation and project funding for funding gaps associated with the development of the sites.
“HFA should be given the resources and mandate to prepare advisory harbourfront enhancement plans for each district in co-operation with the relevant district council, and in consultation with the community”, he said.
Environmental group Clear the Air believes the exercise is useless and that people are discouraged by a government that has no clue despite a public consultation in 2004.
“The government did not understand what it was told in 2004, that what people want are amenities to make (the harbourfront) a tourist attraction and a place for local people to enjoy the harbourfront”, the former chairman of Clear the Air, Christian Masset, told Macau Business.
“In 2004, we told the government what to do. And the government is still asking what should we do? It’s completely contradictory”, said Masset, a teacher and consultant.
“We then know what we want [but] it seems the government has a hidden objective of making more roads”, said Masset.
He said the consultation website using a picture of what a normal harbourfront should look like is “bizarre”.
“The government has no clue what to do or how to set up a beautiful harbourfront because the government has always treated the harbourfront as a road network and not as a place to socialise and to beautify”, he said.
He felt that the government wanted to “create a debate” instead of acting on what had been discussed a decade ago. He cites the new Central Harbourfront.
“If you look at the harbourfront today, it’s empty because it was cut from the centre of the city by the roads. Back in 2004, we told the government you are separating the harbourfront from the city. The harbourfront is not integrated but is severed by this network of roads.
“Therefore, you have a vast space which should have been occupied by bars and restaurants but there’s nothing and people say why do they have to go there? It’s a long walk, it’s difficult,” he said, adding the idea a decade ago was to put the road network underground.
Masset said the Big Wheel was not “a bad idea” as it is easily accessible being near the Star Ferry.
“The idea of the Big Wheel is good but it just occupies a tiny space compared to the vast empty space, which is difficult now to attract people. The original plan was flawed because the roads cut off the whole area from the city. You have to walk a long way. To make the distance acceptable, they really have to put out there some valuable features – a lot of restaurants, interesting places to make the walk worthwhile”, he said.
Even in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Avenue of the Stars is “a shame”, he maintains because “There’s nothing to be proud of, except the view. There’s no place to sit. There’s no bar, there’s a Starbucks. You have to go to an expensive hotel to eat and enjoy the view. You have to be rich to eat and enjoy the harbour or you have to spend on an expensive meal. If you cannot afford an expensive meal in a nice hotel, you’re not allowed to sit and enjoy the harbour. It’s very sad”.
He said his group had not submitted any written submissions for this latest engagement exercise.
“We’re tired of it. We did everything back in 2004. We don’t believe in this consultation exercise”, Masset said.
In 2004, the Court of Final Appeal ruled in favour of Winston Chu Ka-sun’s Society for the Protection of the Harbour, against government reclamation work for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, saying that any reclamation must satisfy the test of overriding public need and be supported by cogent and convincing materials.
It is hoped that reclamation work will have stopped.
*Macau Business Hong Kong contributor.
Assistant news editor of The Standard newspaper