Development of West Kowloon Cultural District
1 June 2005
Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau
Attn: WKCD Team
Development of West Kowloon Cultural District
We are writing in response to your public consultation to submit our views on the above development.
We believe that the present process does not constitute a public consultation in the proper sense. The public's views are not being consulted on an open basis. The baseline requirements for the design - including the canopy, and the short-listing of the three developers - have already been determined internally within the government. The public is being asked only to choose among the three short-listed developers, and it is not even clear how their views on that will be respected. The process to date bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of the subsequently-aborted Superprison, which was likewise conceived within government on narrow criteria and presented to the public more or less as a fait accompli.
At best the present process for deciding on the West Kowloon development is misguided. At worst it gives the impression that extremely valuable property assets are being gifted to developers - a form of crony capitalism. We urge that a stop be put to the present process, and the whole matter put on a proper footing in a manner such as we explain below.
Firstly, proper consideration is needed of what cultural facilities Hong Kong actually needs. The starting point should be an inventory of what we currently have. Hong Kong has a considerable number of museums already; it is not clear to us that at this stage it needs more. Rather, we believe the priority should be on improving the museums and cultural facilities that we already have. The collections of some of them are poor, and they have insufficient funds to host international exhibitions (unless private sponsorship is obtained, as with the recent exhibition of French Impressionists). More attention is needed to the "software" of these cultural facilities, rather than merely building more physical facilities ("hardware").
Secondly, even as regards the buildings, attention should be paid to the existing ones first. We understand that monies are not available even to maintain some of them properly, so that they are falling into disrepair. And the existing complex of buildings including the Cultural Centre on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront needs redesign to make better use of this prime site (for example, the buildings have no windows despite having Hong Kong's most spectacular views).
Thirdly, if a need for more physical facilities should be identified, is it wise to locate them all within one area, i.e. West Kowloon? Surely the option of spreading the benefit across different regions of Hong Kong should at least be considered?
Fourthly, if indeed it is felt that a cultural hub is needed, this should be handled as a separate project in itself, not bundled with a commercial and residential property development. Under the present proposal, less than 30% of the 40 hectare site will be for cultural facilities, and 67% will be for commercial and residential development. In other words, the public will gift some 26 hectares of prime land to a developer in return for a few museums - absurdly poor value for money. If the property development is needed to pay for the museums, the two transactions should be conducted separately, i.e. the land sold off and the museums built with the proceeds.
Fifthly, the design and operation of cultural facilities should not be assigned to property developers. They are simply not qualified for the job. Cultural facilities should be designed and operated under the oversight of representatives of the public (who are paying for them) and of the cultural institutions and organizations. In the longer term, private sector foundations and institutions should be encouraged to come forward to manage and take charge of such facilities.
Sixthly, the design for the cultural hub should be selected by the public based on ideas submitted in an open international competition. This is the normal practice overseas for sites of public importance. It should certainly not be a matter for the government to specify major design features such as the canopy, and even to reject proposals that do not incorporate such features. Nor should it be for the government to arrive at a short-list of just three candidates.
Seventhly, we have strong reservations over the idea of a canopy. Hong Kong has spectacular and beautiful natural landscape; there is no need for an artificial icon. A canopy is expensive, would require maintenance, would have possibly unpleasant effects in terms of trapping heat and light underneath it in the summer, and would have only a limited lifespan. Far better to create a canopy of trees, which cost little, are self-renewing, and are beautiful.
Eighthly, we question whether so precious a site should be dedicated two-thirds to property development. We would prefer consideration to be given to making the entire space a park. We draw a parallel with the Great Exhibition in England in 1851. That had a canopy of a kind in the form of the Crystal Palace (a glass exhibition hall), but the canopy is long since gone. What remains is Hyde Park itself, which was purchased with the profits of the exhibition and dedicated to the recreation of the people and visitors of London, who have enjoyed it ever since. There are very few places where people can stroll or play on grass in Hong Kong - why not take the opportunity to turn West Kowloon into a large park?
We hope that our views will be helpful to you, and that the present unfortunate process may yet be turned to the good of the people of Hong Kong.
Alan Lung Ka-lun
Reproduction of this paper is permitted with proper attribution to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation