Airport mall or Buddhaland? Take your pick

May 26, 2015 13:42
The proposed SkyCity mall will be built near Terminal 2 on the airport island which is currently a temporary golf course. Photo: Airport Authority Hong Kong

I have known Vincent Lo for a number of years and I have admired his perseverance.

At the end of May, the chairman of property conglomerate Shui On Group, will step down as chief of the Airport Authority. (Lo will become chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council next month).

Last week, he invited some of his friends to a tea reception which I thought was just going to be a farewell chat.

But apparently, Lo still cares a lot about the future of the airport.

He used the gathering to make a final push for a proposed commercial-cum-office development in SkyCity, on the northern part of the airport island.

It would be a tremendous waste of space if the project was not built, he said.

In 2013, there were reports of disagreement between Lo and the late former Airport Authority chairman Marvin Cheung over a big chunk of land east of Terminal 2.

Lo is a long-time advocate of SkyCity, which was first tabled in 2001 as part of the airport development master plan.

The development would include an upscale mall and offices on 57 hectares, providing a total gross floor area of 11 million square feet.

It would be larger than the Venetian Macao Resort complex and three Two International Finance Center buildings combined.

The 2025 airport master plan gazetted in 2006 gave a more detailed reference to SkyCity.

Modeled on Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, the plan called for shopping, dining and recreation facilities as a last stop for visitors before their flights.

However, SkyCity suffered the fate of many other ambitious initiatives under the Tung Chee-hwa administration.

The 2010 airport master plan did not mention the project. Instead, an underground automatic people mover depot was proposed to be built on the land.

In his first policy address in 2013, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying turned things around with the proposed development of the north commercial district on Chek Lap Kok island.

Shortly after, Lo was appointed to lead the Airport Authority's infrastructure and planning panel.

Cheung, however, insisted the plot be used for the planned depot, leading to rampant speculation about discord between him and Lo.

Cheung died in 2014 and Lo is about to leave the authority.

Lo said preparatory work for the stalled commercial-office development is under way, albeit on a smaller scale -- 14 hectares.

Still, at more than two million square feet, the first phase will dwarf Harbour City, Hong Kong's largest mall.

Lo said three consultants have been commissioned to design the project, which will have a theme and a design featuring local elements.

It will serve airline passengers and those arriving from other points in the Pearl River Delta via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge due to open in 2016.

In addition, it will help ease congestion in urban shopping districts, offering an alternative for Hong Kong residents.

The first phase is expected to cost HK$10 billion (US$1.29 billion) and the authority is open to various ways to finance it, but Lo said he and other directors will not bid for the project to avoid conflict of interest.

If everything goes as planed, the complex will be up and running by 2018 or 2019.

Development land in Hong Kong is scarce, so a large swathe on the airport island must not be left vacant.

However, I see some challenges.

The project is being billed as a prime shopping destination, featuring luxury brands targeting big spenders from the mainland.

But Beijing's graft-busting purge, lower import tariff and increased e-commerce activity are clouding the outlook for upmarket brick-and-mortar shop operators.

If the project is turned into a mid-luxury mall, critics will question its rationale. Nearby Tung Chung district already has Citygate and plans are under way to build retail shops near the border with the mainland.

Also, Hongkongers may lack the incentive to spend their holidays in SkyCity which may not have enough attractions and amenities after the plan was scaled back.

All this, however, is out of Lo's hand. The future of SkyCity rests with Jack So, his successor.

As for recent efforts to build more landmark facilities, perhaps Lo as TDC chief can take a page out of “Buddhaland Hong Kong”, a parody of Hong Kong Disneyland, to spice up online forums on how to boost tourism.

Some have suggested that Ngong Ping Village on Lantau Island near the airport be turned into a Buddha-themed amusement park.

The viral thread has become the talk of the town, inspiring various other ideas -- even a mock TV commercial.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 19.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Vincent Lo says it would be a waste of space if the proposed luxury mall was not built. Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist