When Lord Foster's architectural firm was awarded the top prize in the competition to design the West Kowloon cultural district two years ago, the government was full of praise for the canopy and the vision it represented. Echoing the words of the international panel assembled to assess plans from all over the world, the then secretary for planning and lands, John Tsang Chun-wah, said the development would be "an urban miracle".
As for feasibility and cost, there was little to indicate the government considered either would present an obstacle. The plan to award the entire 40-hectare site to one developer was predicated on the need to underwrite the cost of the project, which provides for substantial public space and a number of cultural facilities as well as the dramatic canopy. In return, the winning bidder would be able to sell and manage commercial space in the district and receive income from management of the cultural facilities. It is a formula that is increasingly under fire - and official hints dropped on Monday that the government might not require the canopy to be built were cause for concern. The government clarified last night that its intentions have not changed.
The glass and metal canopy was always going to be expensive to build and maintain - as were the green spaces, galleries and performance venues. Yet the jury found that it was "well within the ambit of known technology and experience". And the idea behind handing construction and management of the area over to private developers was to subsidise the public spaces. When the rooftop goes, height limits and other cultural facilities in the plan become vulnerable to change. Without the undulating covering that the jury said "would create an unmistakable landmark for Hong Kong", it is also difficult to see how the area will retain any sense of coherence - or make the architectural statement it was meant to.
If financial viability is a concern, permission might be given to turn the 10,000 seat performance venue into a much-needed 50,000-seat stadium that could fit under the canopy and generate income, as suggested by Paul Zimmerman, of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District. Other avenues should be pursued to make the economics of the canopy work before the plan's one distinguishing feature is eliminated.
With prime real estate such as the West Kowloon reclamation, the danger has always been that greed would trump civic interests. The government must reassure the public by putting in place mechanisms to guarantee this will not happen. For West Kowloon to be a success, the cultural facilities need to be well-built and well-managed.
Removing the canopy requirement, however, would only open the door to skyrocketing height limits and plot ratios. It will also allow smaller developers who have complained about being locked out of the bidding process to lobby for the site to be carved up into parcels. Rising real estate values, especially for high-end flats that could be built on the site, guarantee that the private interest would be great - and developers would seek to maximise profits. Cultural facilities and open space would hardly remain priorities.
The government is expected to put short-listed submissions on display early next year for public review. It also says it will take the comments into account before making the final decision. Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's promises that this "is not another property development project" and that the arts will not play second fiddle must be kept. If the final plans favour commercial development over the arts and leisure components - or if they compromise the sweeping Foster-designed canopy - they should be rejected in favour of a broad consultation on how to use the land. Alternatives could include a vast waterfront park.
West Kowloon represents
one of the last remaining opportunities to build something for the public
on the harbour. It should not be wasted.
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