It seems years have gone by since the announcement of the (still) forthcoming West Kowloon Cultural District. Since before construction began in 2013, the project has been plagued by delays, debates, howls of derision over the budget ($24 billion in public money) and management and, naturally, fears of private developers overwhelming the public aspect.

But the WKCD plugs on: the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade is open and the M+ Pavilion, the district’s future visual arts museum, is set to open ahead of the final building in the middle of this year. M+ is on time and should open as planned by 2019. But WKCD is a long-term project that will likely face more controversy in the coming months, but it is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when, and how smooth the ride getting there is going to be.

A Work in Progress

That’s the situation current CEO Duncan Pescod is facing as the WKCD moves forward. Progress is indeed being made, despite what it may look like when whizzing by on a bus, with the so-called core arts and culture facilities well underway.
Among the parts already under construction are the aforementioned M+, the Xiqu Centre (opening in 2018) and The Lyric Theatre Complex (2017). The basement level Artist Square is at the tendering stage and is also well underway. It should be awarded next year.

That Hong Kong lacks major, modern large-scale cultural facilities is an issue, one that’s at the heart of the creation of the WKCD to begin with. Remaining regionally competitive is also crucial, and with Singapore and China beefing up their cultural venues, Hong Kong is playing catch-up.

Media outlets such as the SCMP and Apple Daily have reported, on multiple occasions, that one of the biggest hurdles facing the district is the potential imbalance between commercial interests and public ones.
To the man on the street, West Kowloon is just another excuse for more shopping malls catering to tourists rather than green space and leisure facilities for residents.

No one at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) would go on record, but a spokesperson told Squarefoot: “It is worth noting that according to the approved development plan of WKCD in 2013, the retail, dining and entertainment (RDE) facilities is strictly limited to about 20% of the GFA (gross floor area) in the WKCD site. Any development of RDE facilities will be bounded by this statutory planning control.

“The retail facilities will be clearly planned to fit within the overall positioning of the district to work within its vision as an arts and cultural hub.”

Additionally, the spokesperson points out, the August 2015 Nursery Park is open to the public, and sits alongside what will be a series of outdoor performance areas.

“The site also incorporates part of the cycling trails along the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, providing an open space for regular outdoor programmes and public leisure activities.” That open space is crucial.

A New District

Right now, developments such as The Arch, The Cullinan, Sorrento, The Waterfront and The Austin form a loose ring around the area, with ICC its single office landmark. How the area develops beyond 2026, the target date for completion of the second phase, remains to be seen.

Though no one from the WKCDA would hazard a guess as to how the project will impact the region and the city, one thing is sure: For an island city, Hong Kong has a painful dearth of waterfront public space. Cities as diverse as Sydney, London, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver and Copenhagen have all taken advantage of their waterfront locations to create cultural and leisure districts that are also cash cows.

And it’s something Hong Kong could use for city branding.

“Hong Kong’s skyline is one of the most recognisable in the world. For it to remain competitive, it needs to evolve and improve. You mentioned Sydney wherein the cultural aspect (Sydney Opera House) is part of the skyline. Iconic buildings are also important in city branding,” theorises Richard Raymundo, director of valuation and advisory services at Colliers International, noting Seould, Taipei and Abu Dhabi are just a handful of urban centres with defining landmarks.

As the WKCDA spokesperson continued: “While the WKCD project is gradually taking shape, Hong Kong is already gaining recognition in the international arts arena for the visionary decision to embark upon the WKCD project.

“This was especially evident in the recent Art Basel, during which Hong Kong was the focus of the international art world as collectors, exhibitors, galleries, museum directors and curators, and art aficionados from around the world took part. Indeed, some 70,000 visitors attended Art Basel, Art Central and the Sigg Collection Exhibition mounted by M+. As the project moves forward, WKCD will continue to boost the art landscape in the city. The economic value of the investment in the WKCD will become even more evident.”

As offices and retailing increasingly digitalise, the idea of the “neighbourhood” and a real street life has gained traction around the world. Office occupiers want to be in hip districts and labour wants to live in them.

While Raymundo and Colliers’ General Manager of Office Services Fiona Ngan question the WKCD’s commercial viability, Ngan does argue the high cost of living and lack of luxury lifestyle amenities like open space and cultural facilities mean “This project [should] be more focused on community interest more than financial budget.” And the WKCD’s impact on nearby residential property is difficult to gauge.

Rents at the likes of The Arch and Sorrento already range wildly between $25,000 and $100,000 per month, and prices start at roughly $15 million depending on the building.

A local agent who wished to remain anonymous estimated: “Prices already rival those in Mid-Levels in some instances, and as we’ve seen in the last year or so, the luxury sector hasn’t moved as much as the mass market. Without more to offer around there, residential prices are probably going to hold steady for the foreseeable future.”

As long as no major flies get in the ointment, the WKCDA expects development to proceed smoothly, though Raymundo is quick to emphasise: “The need to balance the commercial and non-commercial aspect given that not all land uses will be financially feasible. This is where the government has to come in for subsidies.”

There’s a way to go yet.