Same Old Song and Dance?It’s been a bumpy ride. After over a decade of faltering, the West Kowloon Cultural District is close to breaking ground. Hopefully. It won’t take long — probably within the next two months — for the Town Planning Board to decide on future of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which will commence work next year. Will West Kowloon ever be the same? Will it become more commercial rather than cultural?

In a city where skyscrapers go up in the blink of an eye, all eyes are now on the 40-hectare, undeveloped prime waterfront site. Under the current plan, a design by Norman Foster and his firm, the site will be developed into a multi-purpose arts complex, nicknamed “City Park,” comprising 17 cultural venues, space for arts education, a giant park and a museum of visual culture M+, headed by the former director of London’s Tate Modern.

On top of that, of the site’s 7.97 million square feet gross floor area, 20 percent will be allocated to residential use, 20 to 25 percent for hotels and offices, 15 to 20 percent for dining and retail facilities, leaving about 35 to 40 percent for arts and cultural use.

The long delayed, multibillion-dollar project began with the lofty ambition to put Hong Kong — dubbed a “cultural desert” — on the global arts map. The city has no arts facilities that are comparable to iconic opera houses or theatre districts in New York or London. Just a year after Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, the city’s former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa unveiled an unprecedented plan of developing an arts hub in his policy address.

Then everything came to a halt in 2006 when the idea of appointing a single developer faced widespread accusations of turning the cultural hub into a “property scheme.” Although it was revived a year later, the HK$21.6 billion project was beset by problems, from a glacially paced bureaucracy to bloated budgets, from questionable planning to the abrupt departures of two executives in three years.

Others are feeling uneasy over the overtly intimate relationship between the government, tycoons and developers. Alice Poon, author of Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong views the project as the government using, “arts facilities as a way of enhancing land values in this area.”

The plans have already spurred an interest in area’s property market, especially among mainland investors. The slew of luxury apartments already in West Kowloon — The Arch, The Cullinan and The Harbourside atop Kowloon Station to name just a few — all have eye-popping price tags of HK$20,000 per square foot, compared to the Mid-Levels’ average of HK$14,100. Why? It’s located in the heart of the metropolitan area on the Kowloon side — or will be.

The arts hub will be the terminus of the controversial Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed railway, which will be complete in three to four years. It’s also connected to the International Commerce Centre, Elements and two MTR stations (Austin and Kowloon), making it less than half an hour’s train ride to the airport and two minutes away from Central. Its proximity to city centres such as Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and the Hong Kong west (via the Western Harbour Tunnel) gives the area a great situational advantage.

“This is a property project in disguise,” claims K Loh on behalf of Hong Kong Alternatives, a local advocacy group against property development on the site. “The government plans to allot over 50 percent of the buildable area for hotel, office, residential and commercial development.” The site should be developed solely as open spaces and cultural facilities for the public, the group has proposed. “The West Kowloon site is the last and the most spectacular harbourfront land. It is Hong Kong’s crown jewel and should not be sold as properties to the rich and famous.”

“The residential housing will be only for the elite. This is [an example of] property hegemony, a repetition of the Cyberport case,” Loh adds.

Others find the proposed plan justifiable. “Although the plot slated to build residential flats is relatively small, Hong Kong definitely needs more room for arts — an iconic cultural spot in the city centre to attract tourists,” says Vincent Cheung Kiu-cho, national director for Greater China with Cushman & Wakefield. “Just as Sydney’s opera house occupies a prime waterfront location, nobody would say it needed to give way and be relocated to Perth.”

While it’s commonsense to expect cultural facilities to be lower in heights, property consultants predict prices of apartments on the site are going to create a new record, costing more than HK$20,000 per square foot. Given a height limit of 70 to 100 metres, Cheung estimates the site will supply some 400 hotel rooms, 60 floors of office space and up to 2,400 residential flats over 29 storeys, with each flat sized about 600 square feet.

Nevertheless, smaller-sized flats are by no means less popular among homebuyers. A 500-square-feet flat at The Arch recently sold for a hefty HK$9 million, Cheung adds. “New flats over the site [will] enjoy a panoramic, permanent harbour view, which is rarely found elsewhere. The cultural facilities — which place the district on a different level — will be a plus.” Cheung says. Will the cultural hub be simply cultural? Not in Hong Kong.