Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Turning Point for Hong Kong Harbor

Newly Vocal Group Seeks More Restrained Approach To Waterfront Development

By ALEX ORTOLANI Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL July 5, 2005; Page A10

HONG KONG -- At war with China over trade in the 1840s, the British considered seizing any number of bustling ports, but Capt. Charles Elliot chose a small island with few inhabitants whose Cantonese name means Fragrant Harbor. It turned out to be a good move.
Hong Kong soon became the gateway to China for traders and, later, the financial center of Asia. Even today, though pressured by the rise of ports in mainland China, the harbor Capt. Elliot chose is one of the world's busiest and most colorful, filled with a hodgepodge of ships and bordered by a stunning skyline.
It is also a badly polluted, shrinking body, less than half its original size, after 160 years of being filled in, built up and pumped with untreated sewage. Now, Hong Kong's harbor is at a historic turning point, as a newly vocal contingent of Hong Kong people clamor for a more measured approach to development. As they chalk up more wins, the power dynamic between government and governed appears to be evolving along with the waterfront.
The critics point to showplace harbors like those of New York and Vancouver, where green parks and blue vistas have boosted tourist dollars and brought a bit of psychic peace to the urban landscape. They note that Sydney's Darling Harbour, a deserted rail yard 20 years ago, is now a tourist magnet, with restaurants, shops and events that draw upward of 300,000 people a day to the promenade.
What little harborside dining exists on Hong Kong's concrete shores, by contrast, is mostly under the auspices of pricey private clubs. A scan of the harborfront from the mainland side takes in a sand depot, a fire station and a gamut of drab industrial structures.
Sydney, Hong Kong's critics note, has an independent body that oversees and maintains its most important waterfront sites. The traditionally business-friendly government of Hong Kong, on the other hand, has rarely turned down a developer's proposal, and has filled its coffers in recent decades by selling off the city's limited supply of land. That has meant lower taxes for residents, continued growth for businesses, more housing -- and a harborside blight, in the sore eyes of activists and some exasperated citizens.
Anthony Tong, a 58-year-old high-school principal, recently found himself studying a large model of the harbor and its various construction sites at a public forum. To ease traffic, the government wants to build a road along the harbor, making it less accessible. Mr. Tong pointed to a promenade by the water where he likes to practice his tai chi in the morning.
"I might be a romantic," he said, "but I want to have a harbor that is both accessible to people and doesn't halt traffic" by worsening the congestion.
Over the past few years, activists calling for a prettier, more pedestrian-friendly waterfront have made headway at the grassroots level and in the courts, pressuring the government to create a council to survey the public on its wishes for the harbor. Hong Kong has halted two reclamation projects -- plans to fill in the harbor and build on the reclaimed land -- amid litigation by an activist group and has opened to the public previously closed town-planning meetings.
Today, it's not just angry citizens and grassroots nonprofit groups crying foul -- as effective as those critics have proved to be. Last month, more than 100 businesses, including major companies such as HSBC Holdings PLC and Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., joined forces to demand a better-planned, more tourist-friendly harborfront. The Hong Kong Business Forum says "accessibility and sustainability" are more important criteria than development itself. Forum spokesman Vincent Cheng, chairman of Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp., a unit of HSBC, remembers rowing bamboo rafts in the harbor as a boy.
Hong Kong has long been a hothouse of protest. As far back as the 1920s, laborers struck for 18 months for better wages, says political scientist Michael DeGolyer, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. But lately, the government has had its hands full with significant public dissent. Protesters thwarted the government's single-bidder plan for a major arts center on a waterfront site, as well as a developer's efforts to tear down thousands of unused apartments to build luxury flats. Most momentously, they blocked what would have been Hong Kong's first -- and the world's biggest -- real-estate investment trust, an embarrassment that helped former Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa out the door.
Such successes demonstrate "more focus and vigor," Mr. DeGolyer says, with every victory stoking calls for more action.
The government argues that its latest two harbor reclamation projects -- which it holds out, tantalizingly, as its last -- are crucial to warding off chaotic traffic congestion by 2011. The government says this is the last time it will fill in parts of the harbor to build on, though some activists are skeptical. In addition, there still are likely to be plenty of chances for developers to renovate old harborfront sites.
The government promises to return the water to swimming-level cleanliness, a condition not seen since the late 1970s, when people took their morning dips off piers in the city center. It says the Harbor-front Enhancement Committee, a panel of planning experts, businesspeople, environmentalists and local residents that it has assembled, offers the public a voice in the process.
"We care about what the people think and what they have to say," says Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, chairwoman of the government-appointed Town Planning Board. "We are ready to engage."
The opposition fears more heedless development.
"This could be the last chance for the people to have a say about what happens to their harbor," says lawyer and activist Winston Chu of the two reclamation projects the government is pushing for. Mr. Chu, who has spent a decade fighting reclamation, believes that this is the last chance people will have to stop it, or at least have some parks or green space put into the plans.
K.K. Lau, deputy commissioner for transport for the Hong Kong government, recently warned that if the current reclamation projects are stymied, Hong Kong people could soon see a "traffic disaster" that would deliver a blow to the city's economy. But the government's answer -- building more roads -- tends to raise hackles.
A fisherman at the recent public forum asked about the impact a new road would have on a typhoon shelter. A nurse said she would like to be able to walk along the harbor the length of Hong Kong Island. John Bowden, who heads a harbor-protection group of his own, Save Our Shorelines, showed old photographs of the shore.
"You're saying reclamation must go ahead," Mr. Bowden said, "but this is the heart of Hong Kong. ... Thinking about the visual impact, the issues of cultural loss, the importance of tourism ... have you assessed the loss?"


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