Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Tunnel vision

In 1954, when the Central Artery - a six-lane elevated highway through the heart of downtown Boston - was opened, it was hailed as breathing new life into North America's oldest port city. In the words of mayor John Hynes, it was something Bostonians had dreamed of for 20 years. Designed to accommodate 75,000 vehicles per day, the highway was to allow traffic to flow smoothly through the city again.

Yet, only a few months after it was opened, it was paralysed by massive traffic jams. Confirming what has since been regarded as inevitable for any highway, it was soon choked with traffic. By the 1990s, it would be carrying 190,000 vehicles and be in gridlock for eight to 10 hours every day.

The Central Artery has since been dubbed Boston's other "Green Monster" a bland piece of architecture that shielded houses and shops from sunlight, exacerbated air and noise pollution in the inner city and severed historic neighbourhoods from its famed waterfront. (The original Green Monster is the left field wall at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox baseball team).

Half a century later, the eyesore is being pulled down, following the completion of a tunnel this year - a US$14.6 billion engineering feat labelled the "Big Dig" because of its subterranean nature, and huge cost overruns.

To the joy of Bostonians, cross-streets between downtown and the waterfront, severed by the Central Artery, have been re-connected and the waterfront park extended on to the artery corridor. Soon, the corridor will become a 2km-long stretch of green space with housing, shops and cultural venues that promise to turn downtown Boston into one of the leafiest central business districts in the world.

As the communications director of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Sean O'Neill, talked about the Central Artery at the conference on Designing Hong Kong Harbour District, held last week at the Island Shangri-La Hotel, the parallel between Boston and Hong Kong was not lost on listeners.

Is the Central-Wan Chai bypass, planned to alleviate congestion on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island, another Central Artery in the making?

While other places are moving ugly highways underground at enormous costs, should Hong Kong be repeating mistakes by building more roads in the false hope of catering for an incessant growth in traffic?

Critically, while Boston has tried to reconnect the city with its waterfront, should Hong Kong be reclaiming more land from our beloved Victoria Harbour to build roads that would block our access to the water?

As Professor Bill Barron of the University of Hong Kong pointed out in his presentation, the bypass - initially planned as a six-lane elevated highway on the waterfront - would be partially buried in a tunnel, but would remain above ground in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. He also noted that the P2, presented as a small, tree-lined road in government drawings, would, in fact, have four lanes that would carry a lot of traffic because of a 10-storey "groundscraper" to be built on the reclamation.

Conference co-ordinator Paul Zimmerman said the government's plan for the Central-Wan Chai reclamation called for the addition of 13 lanes to the existing four-lane Convention Avenue, in front of the Grand Hyatt, and the addition of 16 lanes to Gloucester Road in front of Elizabeth House.

He added that in front of Victoria Park, where the Central-Wan Chai bypass and other surface roads would have to be connected with the Island Eastern Corridor (IEC), roads would be stacked five-high, with the top deck 21 metres above the ground.

After their presentations, a member of the audience suggested building a tunnel to replace the IEC. The idea won huge applause, as the six-lane elevated highway along the waterfront from Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay has long been viewed as ruining the waterfront, depressing property values and causing serious noise and air pollution. The only people who maintained their reticence were officials from several departments responsible for Hong Kong's infrastructure programmes.

The conference was opened by Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who repeated the government's pledge that - apart from the current Central Reclamation, the proposed Wan Chai North Development and Southeast Kowloon Development - there would be no further reclamation within the harbour.

Still, the presentations by Director of Planning Bosco Fung Chi-keung and Deputy Commissioner for Transport Lau Ka-keung, who sought to defend the waterfront plans, drew a lukewarm response from a sceptical audience.

Drawing on his 20 years of experience in urban design, architect and planner Peter Cookson-Smith highlighted the pitfalls of using the same planning and regulatory tools that had been applied to the new towns in guiding the design of the harbour front.

Instead of carving up reclaimed areas around the harbour, he called for a review of what would actually be required on the waterfront, now that the increase in population had slowed and the economic role of Hong Kong in southern China had changed.

What the city needed, he said, was a bold vision for the waterfront that recognised a need for quality design and the prioritisation of its recreational potential over traffic and engineering objectives - one that would sustain visitor and tourism interest.

While Mr Cookson-Smith did not use the term "harbour authority", he was clearly asking for one by noting that the existing regulatory and decision-making framework was so complicated that an overriding body with clear goals and objectives was needed.

Which explained why the presentation by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the permanent secretary for housing, planning and lands, was so heartily received. Admitting a lack of proper institutional arrangements to look after the harbour, Ms Lam said she looked forward to learning from two speakers on how the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority succeeded in turning the city's dock areas into vibrant centres of entertainment, culture and recreation.

But she would not be drawn on whether the government would set up a harbour authority to plan and manage the waterfront. She said only that it was a cabinet issue and not one to be decided by a policy bureau.

The idea of setting up a harbour authority was understood to have been widely discussed within government, but no one in the know was prepared to confirm if it had been considered by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his Executive Council.

Instead, the government has set up the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee (HEC); its members include a wide range of people concerned about the state of our harbour, including many critics of the administration.

HEC has no executive power and sceptics are watching to see if it would suffer the fate of other advisory committees, becoming a mere talking shop that officials use as a vehicle to endorse their policies.

In an apparent move to fend off this eventuality, committee chairman Professor Lee Chack-fan, known as an artistically inclined civil engineer and pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, decided to open the committee's meetings to the public.

To the delight of critics, officials told the committee's first meeting last week they were considering burying more of the Central-Wan Chai bypass. One option would even see the demolition of a section of the IEC outside Victoria Park.

Whether HEC will be effective in championing the public's aspirations to salvage the waterfront remains to be seen. But the outcome of last week's conference is clear.

Participants want no further reclamation around the harbour for building yet more roads and unsightly structures that would block them from the water.

What they want is a vibrant and accessible harbour front with promenades where they can stroll, fish, dine and have fun.

While they may not be prepared to pay dearly to bury existing highways along the waterfront, they certainly do not want to repeat Boston's mistakes of putting traffic and engineering objectives above quality of life for the people.

  Contact us .....| .....Harbour Views .....| .....Harbour Chat