HKU reveals plans for a public-friendly Western Harbourfront

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It’s been a long time coming, but Anthony Yeh at HKU has revealed details of plans to open up the Western Harbourfront to the public. Anna Cummins looks at the proposal and how it is being received

Our harbour may not be quite as fragrant as it used to be, but it’s still the figurative heart of our city, complete with boats that traverse the arteries between outlying islands and Hong Kong Island. The Harbourfront Ordinance defines the harbour as a ‘special public asset and a natural heritage for the Hong Kong people’; in other words, it belongs to us.

So why is it so hard for Hongkongers to freely enjoy many stretches of our harbourfront? Huge roads and industry dominate heavy sections of the waterfront, particularly in Western District, where the 2.4km stretching from Sai Wan to Kennedy Town is currently almost completely inaccessible to the public. There are reports of Hongkongers ‘sneaking’ onto the privately owned piers at the Western Wholesale Food Market in Sai Wan, just to try and walk their dog or go for a jog. 

Perhaps this is about to change. Four piers at the Western Wholesale Market are being returned to the council in six months’ time, with plans to open cafés and kiosks in the area, marking a move towards the opening up of this distinctly uninviting stretch to the public. Professor Anthony Yeh and a team from the Department of Urban Planning and Architecture at HKU last month unveiled their Conceptual Master Plan of the future of the Western Harbourfront. “The Western Harbourfront, it is foul and boring, it’s dilapidated!” exclaims Yeh. “You don’t want to even get closer. With this plan, you’ll be able to have a leisurely walk and enjoy the harbour.” 

Key elements of Yeh’s team’s vision include transforming the piers into a heritage and culture-themed marketplace, a tram museum, as well as an ‘iconic observation tower’ that he hopes will provide a new city landmark. “Cities like Sydney and Singapore have an iconic landmark, and this is absent in Hong Kong,” says Yeh. The plan also includes a praya, with features such as an ecological garden, a floating theatre platform, as well as a cycling path. Fellow planner Christina Lo points out that ‘the bike path is the public’s most desired facility; it’s all based on their comments’. 

The team have particularly taken into account the fact that, presently, the Western Harbourfront is very disconnected from the Central Harbourfront. Says Lo: “Currently if you walk on the Central Promenade, it just sort of ends. It is a very important linkage and it will connect.” Yeh goes on to explain the proposed link. “We are trying to build up a link at the memorial garden at Sun Yat-sen [Memorial Sports] Centre, so you can walk over a pedestrian walkway. The piers have to operate 11pm to 8am and we can’t discontinue their use, so this is what we call shared use. Constructing the flyover provides the connectivity, linking up the whole thing.”

The plan is now being submitted to the Central and Western District Council for consideration, and also needs to meet the approval of the Harbourfront Commission, which will require extensive negotiations. A spokesperson from the Development Bureau highlights that ‘while the master plan provides a good basis for initial discussion, we note that the proposal involves relocation of existing users [of the wholesale markets and cargo areas], which requires further consultation with relevant stakeholders’. 

Nicholas Brooke, chairman of the Harbourfront Commission, tells Time Out that they have not yet reviewed the proposal, but he seems generally positive. “From a personal viewpoint, it’s good to see schemes for the enhancement of the waterfront being put forward in this way, and for District Councils taking the initiative in their own areas,” he says. “The piers in this area are underutilised and disconnected from the community, but could provide interesting waterfront uses and experiences.” Brooke adds that, ‘it is important, in terms of the overall role of the Commission, that we ensure any enhancement proposals integrate into the overall plans for the harbourfront… I think the HKU plans form a useful basis for further discussion.’  

However, Paul Zimmerman, CEO of Designing Hong Kong, is concerned that Yeh’s team have ‘forgotten the harbour’ within their plan. “The past glamour of the Western District is all about shipping,” he says. “Despite the presence of piers and breakwaters, HKU failed to include facilities on the six hectares of waterfront for visiting yachts, water taxis, water sports, harbour tours, or any other uses of the harbour as a harbour.”

Perhaps most importantly, any development to be carried out anywhere along the harbour must not contravene the Harbourfront Ordinance, a law finalised in 1999 that prevents Victoria Harbour from unnecessary development. Winston Chu, founder of the Society for Protection of the Harbour (SPH), is passionate about the issue. 

“We are now drafting a letter to the Chief Executive, and the Secretary for Development, and the Chief Secretary, and the Town Planning Board, and the Harbourfront Commission, and the Secretary for Justice. Our letter is to advise them that they need to comply with the law... I am watching the government like a hawk!” 

Chu’s primary concerns are to ensure that no reclamation will occur. “We would love to see Hong Kong having a harbour to rival New York and Sydney, but you need to have a harbour left! If there is no reclamation, or any intrusion into the harbour, it’s a great plan.” Professor Yeh maintains that his plan would only use the existing land, and is proposing ‘no land reclamation at all’. Yet, the idea of a floating theatre stage has concerned the SPH. Dennis Li, deputy chairman of the SPH, points out ‘a floating stage will no doubt be a generation of enjoyment in that part of the harbour, but if you put something floating, that prevents the public from enjoying the harbour’.

Chu takes the argument further. “Assuming I’m now covering the whole of Victoria Harbour with a floating pontoon – would you like that? Then I will say, ‘ah it’s not reclamation!’ The law does not permit it, because the law says the harbour is to be protected and preserved. Anything that brings down the value of the harbour will be against the law.”

While there are many legitimate concerns over these plans, and still many debates to be conducted, it is encouraging to see positive changes being made towards the creation of a harbourfront that belongs to its people, just the way it should. 

Read the full Conceptual Master Plan at bit.ly/HKU-harbourfront.


World class waterfronts

Salford Quays, UK
Salford’s gentrification is one of the largest urban design projects ever undertaken in the UK. After being decommissioned as Manchester Docks, the water was de-polluted, and the area is now home to a war museum, a theatre, a prestigious media centre and watersports facilities, all attracting plenty of business and tourism to this now-booming area.

Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland’s Council are aiming to raise investments of NZ$1 billion ($6b) to develop the city’s waterfront by 2040. The century-old Queen’s Wharf pier was opened up to the public two years ago, and features an iconic cruise terminal called Shed 10, and a huge events space, The Cloud.   

Santos, Brazil
Home to the largest port in South America, the waterfront in Santos is difficult for the public to access, and is lined with dilapidated warehouses. With help from the World Bank, the city is planning a huge project to reconnect the waterfront with the city centre via an underpass. The warehouses will be restored and a cruise terminal, shops, offices, marina and entertainment facilities are in the pipeline.

Washington DC, USA
Located along the Anacostia riverbanks, The Yards – Washington DC’s riverfront development – is redefining the Capitol Riverfront area. The popular Yards Park opened in 2010, and provides recreational space as well as space for outdoor concerts. A public marina will be constructed in the next stage of development.

 

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