Why government backed down on TST harbourfront plan

February 18, 2016 15:31
The harbourfront is just a stone's throw away from where New World is constructing a luxury hotel and a shopping mall. Photo: HKEJ

The government surprised the public on Wednesday afternoon with its decision to scale back the controversial revitalization plan for the Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront.

Suspicions were rife that the renovation project was intended to benefit New World Development, a property developer that supported Leung Chun-Ying in the 2012 chief executive election.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) said it is scrapping the proposal to open restaurants, observation decks and a film gallery on the Tsim Sha Tsui East promenade, which was approved by the Town Planning Board in August last year.

Under the new plan, all trees will be retained and only basic improvement works will be carried out.

The renovation, originally scheduled to take more than two years, will now take only about a year, during which the promenade will be closed.

"The change was made in response to views collected during the public consultation exercise held last year," the government said in a statement.

"The majority of the respondents wished to have fewer structures to be built on the promenade so that people can stroll on a more spacious area and enjoy unobstructed views of Victoria Harbour." 

But what is surprising for many is that the LCSD will continue to manage the harbourfont facilities, backing down from the previous plan of outsourcing their management to a fund established by New World Development.

It will be recalled that the government courted controversy in the summer of last year when it was learned that it had secretly reached a deal with New World Development for the joint renovation of the harbourfront and for the latter to manage its facilities once the enhancement project is completed.

The government had insisted that the partnership with New World was the best option since the company was already managing the Avenue of the Stars.

However, it did not mention the fact that the harbourfront is just a stone's throw away from where New World is constructing a luxury hotel and a shopping mall.

The perception was that the government was giving New World effective control of the traffic at the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade and allowing the developer to bring that traffic to its hotel and shopping mall.

That meant the company could raise the rents for its shops and charge higher for its hotel rooms.

Naturally, the public smelled something fishy was going on, that there could be a collusion between the government and a private enterprise.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand that the Leung administration retreated from its original plan for the harbourfront in the face of growing public suspicions and opposition.

In fact, property developer Sino Group and hotel chain Shangri-la have jointly filed an application for a judicial review of the Town Planning Board decision.

The two firms dropped the case after the government's announcement on Wednesday.

The two property groups are from the Southeast Asia: Sino's Robert Ng is Singaporean while Shangri-la is owned by Malaysia tycoon Robert Kuok.

Both of them have close ties with central government authorities in Beijing. Kuok, in particular, is known to have maintained friendly relations with top leaders for four decades.

Certainly, Leung would not want to cross swords with two business tycoons with strong Beijing connections, and he would not want to be seen as hindering Beijing's policy goal of maintaining a harmonious society in Hong Kong.

A legal battle between the tycoons and the government could raise doubts in Beijing on whether Leung should be allowed to lead Hong Kong for another five years.

So the best option for the government, and for Leung, is to drop the whole arrangement like a hot potato.

Another issue that has been raised by the harbourfront enhancement plan is the transparency of government transactions.

While the renovation plan was submitted to the Town Planning Board for public consultation, the government did not hold an open tender for the project, violating standard procedures for such kind of public-private partnership.

New World appears to be the only loser of the new arrangement, having failed to leverage on the traffic of tourists and promenaders at the harbourfront to bolster the business of its new commercial complex right next to the Tsim Sha Tsui project.

The company is also being criticized in international media for its poor management of the Avenue of the Stars.

CNN Travel listed the spot as one of Hong Kong's 12 worst tourist traps. The broadcaster says: "It is designed with mainland Chinese tourists in mind. You’ll find them here in droves, led by flag-toting tour guides as they stumble toward the promenade’s highlight, a statue of Bruce Lee in kung fu pose ... The whole thing cheapens what could otherwise be an entertaining and informative experience."

The truth is the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade is one of Hong Kong's most attractive tourist spots, where locals and visitors can enjoy the sea breeze and get stunning views of Victoria Harbour.

What the government should do is to abandon its mindset that mainland visitors are the be all and end all of Hong Kong tourism.

The intrinsic charm of Victoria Harbour should be enough to draw the tourists.

In fact, it might make a lot of sense for the government to relocate the Avenue of the Stars to somewhere else. The attraction, a poor imitation of Hollywood's Walk of Fame, has failed to impress many tourists and become a black spot of the promenade.

That said, the public should welcome the cancellation of the original Tsim Sha Tsui renovation project.

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EJ Insight writer