by John Batten
Another contentious government proposal has just been initiated by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). Plans to develop our urban parkland and especially Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Southorn Playground in Wan Chai and Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui have been mooted in the Department’s initial “Public Engagement of Underground Space Development” which ended in early February.
According to the CEDD, the reasons for developing underground space is to assist “improving pedestrian connectivity, enhancing the living environment and creating space.” “Key considerations” are mentioned in the CEDD’s discussion paper, including such obstacles as “geotechnical, structural and infrastructural constraints”, “fire safety”, “financial viability” and the “impact to above-ground facilities and activities.” These appear to be very serious “constraints”, but are breezily set aside in the consultation paper, and without any technical information or arguments for-or-against to help form an opinion, the public is invited to make suggestions!
When studying any place, the entire built environment needs to be considered. It must be seen holistically, not done in a piecemeal fashion and must include road management. For example, the CEDD identifies the congested pedestrian intersection outside SOGO, but rather than initiating a full discussion about this particular problem, the CEDD’s discussion jumps to focus on the grassed area of Victoria Park and how the MTR stations of Causeway Bay and Tin Hau can be linked by an underground pedestrian passage and other facilities, including carparking. The solution to pedestrian congestion outside SOGO will not improved by any underground development in Victoria Park!
Likewise, the CEDD identifies Kowloon Park as being a ‘barrier’ because it blocks free movement between Canton Road and Nathan Road and suggests that pedestrian congestion on Haiphong Road can be improved by underground passages and development in Kowloon Park. Haiphong Road, however, is only crowded because it is the only ground-level connection between Canton Road and Nathan Road. Pedestrian underpasses, such as the one next to the YMCA, are not popular; pedestrians prefer to cross roads at ground-level. And with better signage along the park side of Nathan Road – such a simple improvement! – pedestrian congestion can be relieved on Haiphong Road by encouraging pedestrians to walk through the park. This pedestrian route would be relatively direct, and much more leisurely, to get from either side of Tsim Sha Tsui.
But, the consultation is biased towards the development aspect of underground space development. Building underground is only financially viable if an open-cut method of excavation is used. That means excavation is done at ground-level and best done in areas that are open; areas without buildings and trees. That leaves the grassed and open areas of our parks! Any construction in the parks would mean they would be closed for years to allow construction. And the only viable facilities, apart from carparking, that could be built along underground pedestrian walkways would be shops. We already have enough retail areas in Hong Kong – and just look at the number of vacant shops throughout Hong Kong. Retail is no longer a default development option; times are different.
But the most unacceptable aspect of this consultation is that our green, grassed parks are being considered for development. Our parks are for walking and playing and recreation. They should never be considered as sources of revenue. Our parks are not financial assets – they are places for people and leisure. People and relaxation. They are for people. Tsim Sha Tsui, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay are crowded places and any improvements should aim to make their ground-level environment better for people – and, not an easier driving environment for cars! Underground facilities, of course, can be a valuable addition to space. Currently, more than a third of Causeway Bay properties already use their underground space. But, it is not justified in our urban parks. Other green areas under threat by these plans include Happy Valley Racecourse, green spaces near Hong Kong Stadium and Wan Chai Sports Ground.
Ironically, however, some underground spaces are considered differently by the government. In the West Kowloon Cultural District, the proposed Palace Museum is to be built where a Mega Performance Venue (MPV) – a large concert venue, similar to the Coliseum, capable of seating 15,000 people – had previously been planned. Originally, the MPV also comprised a large underground Exhibition Centre. Foster+Partners, the architects that won the West Kowloon Cultural District Master Plan design, explained that having the MPV with an underground Exhibition Centre was “bringing two compatible functions together within one compact form.” However, when Carrie Lam announced the proposed Palace Museum, the Exhibition Centre was, without explanation, now located above ground: a huge structure dominating the adjacent Palace Museum and taking valuable ground-level space that has Harbour views and originally intended to be parkland. And, what is underground now? Car-parking, despite three MTR stations and buses nearby. This support for such road infrastructure will only worsen traffic congestion in the area. And, these latest changes were done without any “public engagement”!
John Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group