The battle for Victoria Harbour

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The government is in the process of rezoning part of Hong Kong’s harbourfront for military use, igniting heated protests. Shirley Zhao unravels the ongoing controversy 

In the government’s blueprint on the new Central waterfront promenade, the city’s harbourfront is set to be a ‘vibrant, attractive, accessible and symbolic’ masterpiece in the near future. With the gorgeous views out across Victoria Harbour, as well as luscious greens, a raft of exhibitions, entertainment, arts, retail outlets and dining spots, it seems we’re in for what the government calls a ‘world-class’ waterfront.

No-one can deny the beauty of the harbour. Put aside the flowery descriptions and dazzling design plans, a simple stroll along the water’s edge from the government headquarters in Tamar to the Star Ferry piers in Central is a huge pleasure, with the glowing water, boats of all sizes, the city’s magnificent skyline and the laidback walkers and anglers along the way.

However, a decent chunk of this experience might soon be restricted from us. In February, during the Chinese New Year holidays, the government submitted a proposal to the Town Planning Board to rezone 150m of harbourfront land directly in front of the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison Headquarters from open space to military use. If approved, public access to the site will be restricted and new buildings up to 10m-high would be allowed to be built.

The board put the proposal out for a two-month public consultation which went largely unnoticed until April 15, the last day of the consultation period, when almost 10,000 comments poured into the government after local newspapers picked up on it. Most of the comments opposed the rezoning plan.

“The government promised us a continuous waterfront promenade,” says Dennis Li Kit-wai, deputy chairman of the Society for Protection of the Harbour. Li says the plan creates a total gross floor area of 100,000sq ft for development and the government needs to ‘give citizens an explanation’. “Would you call a path behind a massive block of buildings a ‘waterfront promenade’?” he asks. “The harbour belongs to all Hong Kong people. Citizens have the right to enjoy access to it.”

In his two recent blog entries, the Secretary for Development, Paul Chan Mo-po, said that allegations over the installation of large structures and restricted public access at the proposed PLA berth are ‘unjust accusations’. He said the provision of a military dock is in accordance with a 1994 agreement between China and the UK, which states that the Hong Kong government would leave 150m free of the eventual permanent waterfront in the plans for the Central and Wan Chai reclamation at a place close to the Prince of Wales Barracks (today’s PLA garrison headquarters) for the construction of a military dock after the handover.

According to Chan, there would be small buildings such as changing rooms, office spaces and electricity supply facilities inside the military dock, and the dock would be segregated from its surroundings mainly by electronic folding gates, which would be hidden in the ancillary buildings when not in use to avoid any visual obstruction. The dock is to be handed over to the garrison after the completion of the construction works. Chan says that the military has undertaken to open the area to the public as part of the waterfront promenade when it’s not in military use. When the berth is being used, according to the plan, the public will be diverted to a walkway behind the dock.

Currently the dock has four small buildings, which are single-storey structures of about four metres high. “The government and the garrison have maintained constant communications regarding the military dock,” said Chan in his blog. “The garrison understands that Hong Kong citizens cherish the precious harbourfront promenade. I can’t see why the garrison would build large structures on the site, block the views of the harbour and give Hong Kong people a hard time.”

Li, however, remains unconvinced. He argues that the 1994 agreement only requires the construction of a military dock but does not specify that the government rezones the area for military use and hands it over to the PLA garrison. He also points out that the government had always labelled the site as an open space in all previous zoning plans and waterfront promenade blueprints until this year’s proposal. “The public can have legitimate expectations to an open military dock,” he says. “They can expect it because it has appeared on every previous plan as open space. That’s the government’s documented promise to the citizens.”

Angie Cheung Shiu-bing walks from her office in Wan Chai to her home in Central every day after work. She always takes the harbour route because she says she’s fascinated with its amazing views at night – and the cool breeze. “I feel calm and peaceful every time I walk along the harbour,” she says. “But when I see the construction site for the military dock, I’ll frown. I think we all love an unobstructed harbourfront. No-one wants to take a detour behind huge buildings or an ugly construction site.”

At the moment, the results of the public consultation are open for further comment until May 28 and then the Town Planning Board is holding a hearing and may propose amendments in response to public opinion. Li says the board should impose development restrictions on the proposal and maintain the current zoning of the site as open space. “A verbal promise that the PLA won’t build anything on the site means nothing,” he says. “Even if the dock is zoned as open space, navy ships can still park there when it’s necessary. The government should keep its promise to Hong Kong people. It’s unreasonable to rezone the site for military use.”

Chu Hoi-dick, founder of the Land Justice League, says the PLA has taken over more than 2,000 hectares of land from the British army and, according to him, most of it is underused. He says there have been people wanting the garrison to release some of the land for housing development for Hong Kong citizens. He also questions how often the army would actually use the military berth. “They’ve hoarded so much unused land,” he says. “And now they want more?”

Li’s society is now calling for people to sign its online petition (harbourprotection.org) against the proposal. Members are to hand it in to Chief Executive CY Leung after collecting at least 10,000 signatures. According to Li, so far, the society has collected more than 1,000 signatures. He says he and his colleagues are also lobbying LegCo and are to make representations to the Town Planning Board. If these strategies all fail, they may turn to a judicial review for help, he says. “A judicial review would be our last ditch resort,” he says. “But I think the chance that the Town Planning Board will do anything to meet the public demand is very small. I believe eventually we need to take this to the court.”

Over the years, the society has managed to stop several of the government’s reclamation plans. In 1996, the then deputy chairman, Christine Loh Kung-wai, submitted the Protection of the Harbour Bill to LegCo as a private member’s bill. It was passed the following year. During 2002 and 2003, the society won a judicial review against the Town Planning Board over the government’s proposal to reclaim 26 hectares of the Wan Chai harbour. So it could yet win this harbourside battle. “I’m confident that if a judicial review is inevitable, we can win,” says Li. “If there’s any organisation that can win against the government, it’s us.”

OTHER PLA MILITARY SITES AROUND TOWN

Ngong Shuen Chau Naval Base
Ceded by the Qing Dynasty to Britain with Kowloon in 1860, the island was initially used for quarrying by the British, so it’s also known as Stonecutter Island. In 1905, it officially became the base for the British Royal Navy. During the Second World War, it was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and, after the war, the Brits took it back. Located on the south shore of the island, with an area of 16 hectares, the current naval base was built during the handover period in 1994 to 1997. The project cost more than $1 billion, featuring 33 buildings for a range of uses such as offices, dormitories, a hall and a helipad. The site is restricted to the public.

Stanley Fort
The fort, which occupied a site of 128 hectares, was founded in 1841. During the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941, it was where British and Canadian troops mounted a last stand. More than 600 men died in the fighting. The survivors were the last Commonwealth troops to surrender to Japanese forces. The fallen servicemen were buried in the nearby Stanley War Cemetery. By the early 1950s the fort had three-storey barracks, a two-storey Navy, Army and Air Force Institute, medical facilities and a company headquarters. It also had a parade ground and vehicle and equipment park. Control of the site was handed to the PLA after the handover. The Stanley Battery Gun Emplacement at the fort is listed as a Grade I historic building. The site is not open to the public.

Gun Club Hill Barracks
Located in King’s Park in Kowloon’s Ho Man Tin, this site was formerly used by British Army garrisons during colonial times, founded out of the need to house soldiers on the Kowloon Peninsula following the cession of the area after the second Opium War in the 1860s. Once the military encampments were established, several firing ranges were set up for training. By 1977, officers’ married quarters, a school, a church and a hospital were all built at the site. In 1997, the barracks were handed over to the PLA and another hospital constructed for the army was also completed in the same year. The hospital provides medical services for all PLA personnel stationed in Hong Kong.
 

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