How to sell our Central waterfront?

The government is preparing to sell ‘Site 3’ on the Central waterfront. Nicknamed ‘the groundscraper’, the 1.5 million-squarefoot development runs from Jardine House and City Hall down to the Maritime Museum, encompassing both the General Post Office and Star Ferry Car Park.

It is a trophy site for developers who want to be right on Hong Kong’s waterfront for the next 1,000 years, and it is expected to fetch some HK$75 billion.

Whoever buys Site 3 will have to submit a Master Layout Plan for approval by the Town Planning Board to ensure that it meets the official ‘Planning Brief’.

Herein lies the problem. That brief was produced through a bureaucratic process and is bereft of real urban design requirements. To overcome this we need a competitive design process before the site is handed over to a developer.

Instead of a land sale by tender to the highest bidder, developers who want the glory should be required to first qualify with design proposals before bidding to build the winning scheme.

This pooling of ideas is an opportunity to bring out the best of what Site 3 can offer.

The property due to occupy this site will link the waterfront with Central’s famous elevated footbridge system, connecting the heart of the city to the ferry piers. It will be the grandstand for fireworks and Formula E races and will host the main car parking facilities from which people can go anywhere in Central. It will feature on the cover of every tourism and travel dvertisement for Hong Kong.

These public gains, however, are not guaranteed. Will the parks, podium and balconies be truly open to the public? Will commuters on their way to and from the ferry piers be forced through shopping malls? How much of the property will be available for public enjoyment of the harbour views?

The site also poses serious challenges. High capacity roads run around and through the site. Road and rail tunnels perforate the basement. Entrances for car parks, public transport and delivery and garbage trucks risk creating disastrous street-level experiences that already plague Exchange Square and IFC.

That is what happens when developers, under pressure from the land premium they paid in an open tender, seek to satisfy the terms of the Town Planning Ordinance and Buildings (Planning) Regulations in order to start construction as quickly as possible.

During a recent symposium at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, right next door to Site 3, the challenges and opportunities surrounding the sale process and future utilisation were discussed in a series of panel discussions.

“The redevelopment of Site 3 will shape its future use and will change Hong Kong’s iconic skyline,” said John Fitzgerald, chief executive of ULI Asia Pacific.

At the same symposium, planning and architecture firm, Benoy, presented design solutions with input from BuroHappold Engineering. Global design director Simon Bee of Benoy explained: “We hope to encourage the design and development community in Hong Kong to push the planning brief to its full potential.”

We learned how we could reduce the problem of roads segregating the site. Look close-up to see how the designers have tried to increase public gains by covering and bridging over more roads.

This is just one pro bono attempt. Imagine several developers competing for the site in a design competition before it is sold. It will bring out the best of this special project for Hong Kong. Everybody wins.

The challenge we must now overcome is bureaucratic fears. Repeating a sale by open tender is easy. Figuring out how to arrange a design competition that is fair takes some doing — but it has been done before, both here and elsewhere.

So let’s do it. Let’s make sure we have a Central Harbourfront we can be proud of for a 1,000 years.

Design provocation by Benoy and BuroHappold for the Central Waterfront.
See: harbourfront/

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