Dutch-born Paul Zimmerman first arrived in Hong Kong in 1984, and got stuck into the city’s affairs like few others foreigners could boast. After winning a seat in the South District Council in 2010, he has been at the helm of a wide variety of government bodies and NGOs dedicated to improving life in the SAR.
As a member of the Harbourfront Commission, Advisor to the Society for Protection of the Harbour and CEO of Designing Hong Kong, which regularly submits proposals to improve Hong Kong’s waterfronts, Zimmerman has been looking closely at plans by New World Development (NWD) to redesign the often contentious Avenue of Stars promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Zimmerman has identified two problems with redevelopment plans for the Avenue of Stars: the lack of public consultation and the continuing collusion between NWD and the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).
The public good is in danger of being “captive to the tug of war between NWD and the LCSD” both during and after the redesign. This dynamic, he says, is “exactly the reason why the area was dilapidated, stuffed with weird plastic carts, and lacked shading and seating for so long.”
Although the project promises to give a much-needed facelift to Avenue of Stars—which has earned a reputation not only as Hong Kong’s worst tourist trap—NWD’s reluctance to seek public consultation threatens to turn the redesign into “another Cyberport.”
When IT hub Cyberport was developed at Pok Fu Lam’s Telegraph Bay, the project was granted to Richard Li’s Pacific Century Group without the benefit of an open public tender, attracting criticism over the project’s lack of transparency and the collusion between government and development interests that it epitomised.
A decade and a half later, however, the lessons of Cyberport have gone unheeded, and local residents did not see the designs for the overhaul before they appeared in local media.
Zimmerman admits that the Avenue of Stars overhaul is also a product of collusion between government and property developers. Handled properly, it could still be a force for vastly improving the Kowloon waterfront, in the same way he says Swire invested to improve public space around Star Street in Wan Chai.
Without following the established three-step process of envisioning draft concept plans and seeking feedback on these before producing firm plans and submitting them to the planning department, the designs still leave much room for improvement.
Changing the existing railings will make the promenade 70 centimetres wider on both sides, but it will also eliminate what has been appropriated by visitors as public seating along the waterfront.
The “narrow focus of the proposed facilities,” Zimmerman says, “will work for some but not for others.”
Zimmerman has also criticised the plans for failing to take into account adequate crowd control measures.
“Today, when there is an event, the promenade is stuffed with trucks loaded with power generators polluting the air, temporary stage and seating structures blocking pedestrian flows, cables running everywhere for people to step over.”
With the waterfront set to close for three years to carry out construction, Zimmerman says that it’s reasonable to expect that event management is designed into the waterfront.
“The decks should be designed so that we can use them during events as viewing platforms,” he says. “… There should be little need for temporary structures… if the facilities are well designed.”
Zimmerman emphasises that the new waterfront “should be commercial viable.” Far from conflicting with the public good, could even enhance it.
The Avenue of Stars currently lacks seating, shade and food and beverage facilities. By introducing restaurants, cafes and bars to the stretch, the area could be transformed from a much-maligned tourist trap to an area that actually appeals to locals.
LCSD restrictions on gross footage dedicated to food and beverage to 10 per cent of the total area. Zimmerman says NWD is keen to expand the offering but LCSD, reluctant to rezone the area, is not giving an inch.
Apart from objections over design, Zimmerman believes that management of the site should be reconsidered.
The cost is small, especially compared to the cost of redeveloping the New World Centre itself—a 3 million square foot commercial, retail and hotel property with a 63-story tower transforming and dominating the Kowloon skyline.
NWD wants the entrustment agreement between it and government—whereby the government entrusts management of the waterfront—to be extended for another 20 years, giving the developer a virtual two-decade monopoly over events on the waterfront.
Zimmerman suggests an alternative framework: Instead of awarding NWD the contract for a solid 20-year block, open it for renewal every two years.
With no guarantees of satisfactory performance, this arrangement would allow the government to review NWD’s management agreement.
Designing Hong Kong, together with Clean Air Network, Friends of the Earth and the Conservancy Association, last week submitted a formal proposal to the Town Planning Board to turn a section of Des Voeux Road Central into a car-free zone.
The proposal was partly a response to Sit Kwok-keung, whose Intellects Consultancy suggested canceling the tram route from Admiralty to Central last month.
Zimmerman says that they ought to thank Sit for bringing the issue to the forefront of public discourse: for reminding Hongkongers how important public services like the tram are and giving them a channel to express their concerns about the city’s infrastructure.
The stretch of Des Voeux Road Central they propose pedestrianising, he says, has neither residents nor vehicles entrances, only tram and bus commuters.
Although Des Voeux Road Central is “not a nice place to walk” presently, improving the thoroughfare could have the power to affect people’s behaviour, making walking an attractive option.
Barring a complete closure, the group also suggests incremental closures or closing the roads only on Sundays, when Zimmerman says there is “hardly any traffic” on the road.
District Council elections
With Hong Kong’s November 22 District Council elections fast approaching, Zimmerman says he is “seriously considering whether to run”—but won’t confirm his candidacy until the deadline arrives.
Zimmerman dismisses the suggestions that the election represents a “referendum on Occupy.” He believes that “what will you do for me?” will be the question guiding people’s votes, as they look to local concerns and what candidates offer to do about them.
A former member of the Civic Party, Zimmerman says he now has “no close relations” with the party.
Even if he chooses not to run, however, Zimmerman says he is “hopeful to see new forces emerge” in the poll, such as more participation from young candidates, and will have his hands full as the new director of public policy think tank Civic Exchange, as well as continuing in his roles at Designing Hong Kong, the Harbourfront Commission, and other local organisations.
Across all these groups and as a district councillor, Zimmerman says his mission is the same: “Trying to make Hong Kong a better place to live in.”