The New Central Harbourfront - a new opportunity in Hong Kong

New Central harbourfront

Last May, Henderson Land and Nan Fung Group made headlines when they paid an astounding — and record-breaking — HK$50 billion for two commercial land plots. Nan Fung eclipsed Henderson with its Kai Tak purchase, but Henderson cast a longer shadow with the Murray Road car park. The first such tender in years set a benchmark with Site 3, right on the water and part of the New Central Harbourfront, rumoured to be going on the block soon.

High stakes

In late September, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and global architecture firm Benoy hosted a forum on the future of Site 3, its importance, and why Hongkongers should care about another screamingly wealthy developer (or, likely, developers) making a fortune on public land. First, its size will have a far-reaching impact, and second, its visibility makes it a calling card for the city. 

New Central Harbourfront

“Whatever is built on this site is going to be visible on the harbourfront for many years, it’s going to be in photographs, on tourism brochures, and so it will be very much part of Hong Kong does not have the waterfront other global cities have.” Better late than never.

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Benoy’s concepts revolve around themed ideas of Urban Forest, Glacier and Coral Reef, blending public placemaking with commercially viable space for a best of all worlds result. But there are still a great many of questions surrounding the site. Will the winning bidder opt to simply maximise returns at the expense of quality and public realm? Is the government going to stick to the rigid, restrictive tendering rules it always has? Will the site be divided? Will there be public/private collaboration — revolutionary for Hong Kong?

New Central Harbourfront

“It would be nice to get away from making the requirements too tight. That would allow developers to get creative, and that’s the first change in thinking [the government] has to go through,” says Faulkner, adding that a two-envelope bidding process may be a “bridge too far. I know we have a government today that’s far more receptive to doing things better than we have done it, but it’s a question of how they’ll go.”

There are height restrictions on the site, and protected views, but Bee for one thinks a strong, long-term project will need champions to keep it from being dumbed down, and the Planning Department needs to step up its game to ensure a liveable, walkable, sustainable development that will send a signal to the rest of the city. With more land to the east, Site 3 can’t develop in a vacuum. Also, key is transparency, not a strong suit among developers here.

New Central Harbourfront

New Central Harbourfront

“A [municipal] mayor friend has always said the most important property in the city ought to be in the public realm. And this is the most important property,” finishes Murphy. What’s accomplished on Site 3 comes down to the community demanding a quality space, and political will to do it. Murphy: “It’s about whether people are going to embrace the future rather than be rooted in the past. Cities that are going to succeed are making choices between protecting the status quo and reaching for the future. Hong Kong has an opportunity, with this site, to reach for the future.”

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