By Carine Lai, Project Manager at Civic Exchange.
The controversy over the planned facelift of the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade shows once again how our political dysfunction sabotages even necessary projects. The Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront is currently a lacklustre tourist trap. The Avenue of the Stars offers a Starbucks, a few kiosks and some statues by way of attractions, and lacks shade, seating and greenery. The stretch between East Tsim Sha Tsui and Hung Hom is a standard government brick-paved walkway with no amenities other than some benches and trees. Unfortunately, the public relations disaster that greeted the project’s roll-out is more likely to scare the government off trying anything new to improve our public spaces, leaving us with even more unimaginative tick-the-boxes governance.
To be sure, most of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s (LCSD) wounds were self-inflicted. It is unbelievable that after the experiences of Cyberport and the West Kowloon Cultural District that anyone in government could be blind to the implications of appearing to hand over a chunk of prime waterfront land to a single developer. By deciding to award New World Development the project with minimal consultation and no open tender, they guaranteed that suspicions of government-business collusion would be aroused. Efforts at damage control have done little to inspire confidence. It cobbled together an after-the-fact public consultation, which skirts the New World deal and which can only address design and operation details given that the Town Planning Board has already approved the major concept. For its part, New World Development has announced that it would begin work on the site before the public consultation can even take place, in a move that appears to present the project as a done deal.
Yet amidst the political uproar, critics of the project need to apply clear thinking to ensure that their demands genuinely serve the public interest. Rigid principles will not do anyone any favours. Strict opposition to commercial activity on the waterfront, for example, will not foster a vibrant public realm. While a green, non-commercial “people’s promenade” sounds good on paper, in reality it would be rather dull. The world’s most successful waterfronts feature a dynamic interaction between the private and public spheres. London’s South Bank is lined with museums, theatres, shops, restaurants and art galleries, not to mention the London Eye. There are valid discussions to be had about what mix of facilities to build to ensure that all sectors of society will be able to enjoy the space and not just wealthy residents and tourists, but trees and benches alone will not do the job.
Nor is it realistic to insist that improvements to public space should not benefit landlords. Most improvements to public infrastructure will raise surrounding land values by making transport more convenient, attracting more pedestrian footfall, or improving the quality of the environment. This is as inevitable as it is controversial. For example, New York’s famous and much-lauded High Line has set off waves of redevelopment and gentrification in the surrounding neighbourhood, prompting outcries against the displacement of old residents.
The question we should be asking is not whether commercial interests will profit, because of course they will, but whether the changes will result in a net public benefit. In Tsim Sha Tsui, there is little danger of pricing out residents as the waterfront is not located next to residential areas. The three year closure will have a negative impact on nearby businesses, but this could be mitigated by carrying out the work in stages. (The government has not offered sufficient justification for why the entire promenade must be closed.) If done right, the facelift stands to improve the quality of life in Hong Kong.
Another point is that public-private partnerships (PPPs) for the construction and management of public open spaces are not inherently corrupt. In many cities, they have been a way for cash-strapped governments to harness private money to deliver high quality open spaces. London’s South Bank is managed and operated by a consortium of corporations and institutions which own properties and facilities along it. The privately-managed Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City is funded through an unusual mechanism whereby residential property development in and near the park is used to pay for the park’s maintenance and its extensive recreation programmes, from astronomy nights to nature talks.
In Hong Kong, the case for PPPs of this type is weaker as the government has no shortage of revenue, but rather deliberately underfunds the LCSD and other government departments in order to keep recurring expenses low. Moreover, the government has already announced its intention to set up a Harbourfront Commission to holistically manage and operate waterfront areas, so extending New World’s contract for a further 20 years contradicts the stated policy. It would be better for New World’s contract to be reviewed every few years in order to ensure quality, as the government currently does with non-profits which adopt heritage buildings, such as PMQ in Sai Ying Pun. In theory, a PPP could be a useful temporary strategy to circumvent the LCSD’s standard bureaucratic management until the Harbourfront Authority is ready to take over.
The problem is that the gulf between theory and practice may be too wide to bridge. Even if the LCSD’s initial intentions were good, its tone deaf execution has given fuel to the already high levels of cynicism in Hong Kong, to the point where even if it tried to fix its mistakes, it would not be trusted to do a good job. When this happens, the government usually does one of two things: push through with the original plan to the satisfaction of no-one; or cave in and do nothing. That would be a loss for us all.