Harbouring hope for a revitalised waterfront

7 December 2017

As published in 'Fluid Futures'

A key plot in Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront has the potential to deliver an iconic destination for the city. Benoy offers a series of design ideas to promote thinking about what a future Hong Kong postcard might look like.

So far, 2017 has been a record-breaking year for commercial land purchases in Hong Kong. In May, Henderson Land Development set a world record when it offered HK$23.28bn ($3bn) for the site of a multi-storey car park on Murray Road. At 2,880m2, it was Central’s largest commercial plot put up for sale by Hong Kong’s government in two decades.

That record was short-lived, however; a couple of weeks later, Nan Fung Development purchased a 19,044m2 commercial site in the Kai Tak area of Kowloon for a whopping HK$24.6bn.

One of the next highly anticipated land parcels in Hong Kong to be put on the auction block is rumoured to be Site 3 of the new Central Harbourfront, part of the government’s HK$12bn redevelopment initiative at the waterfront. The 4.76ha plot of reclaimed land stretches from Jardine House to the Central Ferry Piers and sits adjacent to Two International Finance Centre.

The city’s Planning Department has conducted an urban design study for the new Central Harbourfront and a specific planning brief for Site 3 that will be incorporated into the conditions of sale. While the planning brief outlines use and design parameters, industry observers are concerned that it merely provides a development framework and approval process to be followed by the highest bidder for Site 3.

Hong Kong’s public tender system is focused on generating the highest revenue possible for the city, rather than delivering attractive, ambitious and creative built environments.

But Site 3’s waterfront location dictates that whatever is built there will inherently become part of Hong Kong’s postcard-picture view and has the opportunity to become a shining star within the urban fabric. Is it time for the government to step up as a steward for the city and its citizens and consider alternative procedures for public land disposition, to ensure Site 3 achieves its world-class potential?

Global architecture and design firm Benoy sees the tremendous opportunity Site 3 presents for Hong Kong, where the 70-year-old business jump-started its Asia-Pacific operations 15 years ago.

“The Harbourfront is a great place now, but we should be thinking about what it could be in the future,” says Benoy global design director Simon Bee. “Everybody knows this place; therefore it deserves a very special commentary. There needs to be connectivity, activity and a rich mix of uses. The challenge is to match the commercial viability of the site with placemaking.”

The development will need to be commercially viable and the planning brief calls for minimum space requirements to accommodate specific uses, as well as prerequisite connections and open spaces. While the waterfront is accessible, the connection from Central is abrupt and could be improved to meet or exceed the standard other harbourside cities have achieved.

An opportunity to make connections

The Benoy team sees a real opportunity in the number of connections that can be made between the core of Central and the water, positioning Site 3 as the crux that brings together all the surrounding areas.

“There are some key constraints under the ground on these sites, which means we need to think about the overall development being put together as a series of individual pieces that are interconnected, like a series of overlapping lily pads,” says Bee.

Benoy’s urban design team studied the government’s planning brief and analysed the site’s basic features, including key constraints and existing uses, to conceptualise a revitalised waterfront destination. Height restrictions mean that the development might be fairly multi-scaled in relation to the rest of Central, presenting the chance to create roofscapes and terraces that offer a multitude of greenery and views of both the city and the harbour.

To demonstrate how Site 3’s potential could be realised through good design, Benoy’s team applied their expertise in balancing creative vision with commercial viability to a series of initial solutions.

Three of these concepts are represented by the thematic code names ‘Urban Forest’, ‘Glacier’ and ‘Coral Reef’, and the firm hopes that these visualisations will spark conversation and promote innovative thinking about the sale process for Site 3.

Creating an accessible public realm

The concepts include elements that the team at Benoy’s Hong Kong studio would desire for their city’s new harbourfront: creating an interconnected, accessible public realm – an urban village that offers different uses, from al fresco dining to outdoor exercise parks – is important, but so is maintaining the city’s heritage.

For example, the government plans to sell the General Post Office in Central and demolish it for commercial redevelopment, but Benoy has kept the landmark building in its designs.

The illustrations were recently unveiled at an event focused on Site 3, called ‘Shaping Hong Kong’s New Central Harbourfront’, organised by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) with support from Benoy, BuroHappold Engineering and non-profit organisation Designing Hong Kong.

The event brought together industry leaders and advocates who discussed the planning brief for Site 3, best practices for how it should be sold and developed, and how the use of an alternative, design-led tender process could help the city’s waterfront to evolve.

“The concepts offer an early representation of how Site 3 might be transformed to become a new waterfront destination that is an accessible, attractive public place, but also commercially viable,” says Bee. “We hope to encourage the design and development community in Hong Kong to push the planning brief to its full potential.”

A date for Site 3’s eventual sale has yet to be announced, but industry observers across sectors hope that the government will see value in changing the tender process.

Social and environmental factors should certainly be considered alongside financial ones. By encouraging investment in the public realm and designing for connections between places and people, it is possible for ‘Asia’s World City’ to build the world-class waterfront destination it deserves. 

 

Images:

1. The unique shape of the smaller buildings in the Coral Reef design concept mimic a series of lively, interconnected stepping stones

2. Benoy’s Urban Forest concept connects the areas within and around Site 3 using greenery and open spaces above ground, to create a ‘Central oasis’ 

3. The multi-scaled buildings in the Glacier concept optimise viewing opportunities within an urban village, as the buildings ‘step down’ from Central toward the water

 

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