The plan, which is expected to receive its final legislative approval this week, represents a political victory for Chief Executive Donald Tsang. "He wants to leave a mark in history," says Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Of course, Donald hasn't achieved a lot of concrete things, so this may be one thing he can secure within his term of office."
It's the concrete part has some Hong Kong residents worried. The city has long had a mania for massive building and land-reclamation projects, but that ardor is cooling. Landfill has left Hong Kong with an ever-narrowing harbor, and the reclaimed land has frequently been used for roads and bus terminals rather than for parks or restaurants. "Hong Kong has a magnificent harbor," says Christine Loh, head of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong think tank. "But actually it's pretty awful at the waterfront."
The city now has its best chance for decades to put that right. The site of the planned government headquarters—4 hectares reclaimed from what was once HMS Tamar, a British Royal Navy base—will adjoin 18 hectares of Central waterfront now being filled in. Two other major harborfront sites—40 hectares in West Kowloon slated for a cultural center and the former Kai Tak airport—are now in planning stages. "These are three very important pieces in the jigsaw of the city," says Bosco Fung, Hong Kong's Director of Planning. "Once finished with these three, we will have a complete picture of the metro area." Hong Kong could yet have a waterfront to rival those of Sydney or San Francisco. But if it gets things wrong, the city could be stuck with more lifeless stretches of concrete. "This is our last chance to fix this," says Paul Zimmerman, a harbor activist. "Tamar is going ahead and will be given over to government offices. Now what do we do with the rest of it?"
For much of its history, Hong Kong has used the harbor as an inexhaustible supply of land. Reclamation has enabled Hong Kong to grow both physically and economically. But the fill-and-build model has led to a backlash, and in 2004 lawyer and activist Winston Chu won a court fight to block a 26-hectare reclamation project in Wanchai, east of Central. "There is a very strong community call to stop all this continuing infilling of the harbor, which I think is totally valid," says Fung. "But still I think we need to finish it up and build the best waterfront we can."
Finishing it up will not come easy. The government postponed plans for a new headquarters at Tamar during the SARS outbreak, and when it reintroduced them last fall, it met strong opposition. But Tsang has pushed the plan aggressively. In March, he met with representatives of the Harbour Business Forum, a coalition of prominent corporate leaders who had issued a detailed report outlining problems with current government plans for the Central waterfront, and "gave them a bit of a dressing down," according to a person familiar with the meeting. Since then the group has been more muted on the harbor, and two political parties that had raised questions about the plan eventually agreed to go along.
The tussle over Tamar is just a prelude to planning the other undeveloped sites. Last month the government issued a model for the Central waterfront that got some grudging praise from opponents. "It's moving on, which is good," says Markus Shaw, chairman of WWF Hong Kong. But critics argue that the official scheme still won't bring in enough people to keep the waterfront lively. A group that includes Shaw, Loh and Zimmerman has developed an alternative design for the area, focusing on smaller buildings with a diversity of commercial offerings. They're calling the dueling designs "The Battle of the Models." If there was any fairness in life, the fight would be won by the model that's more attractive and people-friendly. But this is Hong Kong: don't bet on it.