HONG KONG The Hong Kong government has just unveiled plans for a new multibillion-dollar headquarters on a prime site right on the central harbor front — and has immediately run into arguments and accusations of building an expensive folie de grandeur. Unnecessary, potentially an expensive eyesore, set to ruin the unique waterfront view — these are just some of the outpourings of protests already made against the proposal.

The plans are certainly ambitious. The proposed new government complex, which will provide accommodation both for the main central government offices and for the legislative council, will help to create a so-called “civic corridor” on the central waterfront next to the headquarters of China’s People’s Liberation Army garrison.

The cost of the new complex has been put at HK$6.4 billion (about $850 million) even though the project has yet to be put out to tender. But this does not include the value of the land itself, which has been estimated as worth up to HK$16 billion.

John Tsang Chun-wah, the secretary for planning and lands, said the scheme was cost-effective and would help to bring together all the main organs of the government and help save HK$100 million a year being paid on rent.

The new complex could be up to 50 stories high and is scheduled for completion by 2007. The secretary appealed for international architects to compete for the open tender.

The area for the new complex is known as the Tamar site, after the name of the British military headquarters on adjacent land, and is redolent with the final days of history of Hong Kong as a colonial territory. The land was only reclaimed from the sea between 1994 and 1997 after the British Royal Navy had moved to Stonecutters Island.

But it was here in 1997 that Britain’s armed forces held their farewell ceremonies in the drenching rain before Hong Kong was handed over to China. Here too, a few hours later after the British flag had been hauled down for the last time and China’s red banner unfurled, Prince Charles and the last British governor, Chris Patten, boarded the royal yacht Britannia to sail away from Hong Kong marking the formal farewell to the territory after 156 years of British rule.

The reclaimed land had remained vacant thanks to internal government bickering over how it should be used, with the arguments increasing as land prices fell. A circus, go-carting, dancing, tourist events and Chinese New Year parades have been held on the spot.

Controversy has already begun even before the design process has been started, let alone before anyone has an inkling of how the new building will look.

Although many property developers see the scheme as an expression of government faith when the market is slow, some of them point out that if private commercial developers had control of the site they would be able to create double the amount of space by maximizing use of the area.

But there is more concern about what government control of a huge area of land right on the waterfront will mean, particularly when the PLA headquarters is next door to the complex. The police have already tightened up against demonstrations outside the existing central government offices.

Some legislators want a space to be provided where critics can demonstrate, particularly since Hong Kong, in spite of its prosperity, lacks a democratically elected government. Others are aghast at the prospect that the new government headquarters might be a target for protests and will want the site to be made as secure as possible.

This, say advocates of more open government, would just symbolize a Hong Kong government that is scared of letting the people get too close. Doubts about the ability of government officials to plan imaginatively and use the key waterfront space to best advantage also worry other civic minded people. The new complex will be right on the harbor and will take its place on the skyline alongside Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.’s gray steel and glass tower and the sparkling giant dagger of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Building.

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