The transformation of Hong Kong’s decommissioned Kai Tak International Airport is the city’s single largest development project. At 323 hectares (798 ac), the former airport—well known for its heart-stopping approach pattern—represents an unparalleled opportunity for expansion in one of the world’s most densely urbanized cities. Plans for the redevelopment of Kai Tak, however, have been mired in controversy and debate since its closure in 1998. With the window of opportunity closing, the pressure is on Hong Kong’s leaders to implement a development plan that will both maximize the site’s inherent value and satisfy citizens’ concerns.

In December 2011, the Hong Kong government sponsored an Urban Land Institute (ULI) advisory services panel to study the existing vision and plan for the Kai Tak Development (KTD). A group of industry leaders, led by Jeremy Newsum, executive trustee of the Grosvenor Estate, sought to answer this question: How can Hong Kong implement a holistic, sustainable development plan for Kai Tak capable of creating an urban mixed-use community over a period of 20 to 30 years? “There is always a temptation to use such a large site to satisfy many different aspirations, and this can lead to a series of set pieces [that] are difficult to knit together. How to build a sense of community or place was the critical question put to the panel,” said panel chair Newsum.

The government has made a good start on this effort by envisioning the Kai Tak site not as a stand-alone project, but as part of a larger initiative known as CBD2. With limited land and rising demand, Hong Kong’s central business district (CBD) has seen office rents skyrocket—to the most expensive in the world at $213.70 per square foot ($2,297.84 per sq m), according to Colliers International. To increase capacity, chief executive Donald Tsang announced the government’s plan in October 2011 to build a second CBD in the former industrial areas of Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay, directly north of the Kai Tak site. The panel endorsed this vision, emphasizing that these physical and economic connections are imperative in overcoming the chronic problems of isolation and disconnection that often plague large-scale planned communities.

In addition to suggesting enhanced connectivity, the panel made a number of recommendations to ensure the long-term vitality of Kai Tak which apply not only to the former airport, but also to any city with surplus land for redevelopment.

Create a Development Corporation. The panel cited Battery Park City—formerly the port of lower Manhattan, today a successful mixed-use urban community—as an example for KTD to follow. New York City used a development corporation model, which allows a government to control land use beyond the zoning system, selling or leasing parcels to private developers to build projects that are in accordance with strict design guidelines and a master plan. A “one-stop shop for growth,” as the panel referred to it, a development corporation can closely control phasing to match infrastructure delivery or reflect market realities. This flexibility is crucial when dealing with projects with long timelines, like KTD.

Avoid Monoculture. Though it can offer benefits like those described immediately above, strict government control of development can sometimes become rigid, resulting in a strict segregation of land uses that limits economic viability. The panel opined that a diverse mix of uses, both vertical and horizontal, would be necessary to create a vibrant and active district at Kai Tak. Limited revenue-producing uses like sports stadiums or civic buildings can also restrict the commercial potential of large-scale redevelopment efforts—a particular concern the panel had with the original KTD master plan and its proposed sports complex at the heart of the site. “Stadiums are not programmed on a regular basis, create an enormous dead zone, and limit any kind of life or vitality that you are trying to create,” cautioned Robert C. Lieber, executive managing director of Island Capital Group in New York. 

Maximize the Value of Open Space. At Kai Tak, more than 30 percent of the master plan is reserved for open space. The panel recommended that KTD consolidate this generous allotment of open space into a grand central park, capitalizing on the value-generating potential of iconic green spaces. Increasingly, cities have recognized the positive relationship between open space and property values, as public spaces like Bryant Park in New York or Campus Martius Park in Detroit have buoyed surrounding values and catalyzed investment. At KTD, with 11 kilometers (6.8 mi) of waterfront and views of the harbor and mountains, the potential for an iconic central park is even greater.

Pursue an Icon. Every world city has its icon—a building or monument or public space that becomes synonymous with its environs. New York has Central Park. London has Big Ben. Sydney has its Opera House. While Hong Kong has become one of the financial centers of the global economy, it lacks that icon—a single project to symbolize its status as a world city. The redevelopment of Kai Tak, however, provides an opportunity to change that, says Sir Stuart Lipton. “It takes only one place to change a city and its international reputation.”

It is not often that a city has the opportunity to build a district on the scale of Kai Tak. Hong Kong has laid the groundwork for success through comprehensive community engagement—a critical component for redevelopment in dense urban areas, according to Lieber. “The process is important. Giving people the opportunity to voice their opinion and be heard through an open dialogue with leadership gives KTD a great advantage.”

With a few tweaks to the development plan—forming a development corporation, consolidating open space, maximizing the economic potential through its mix of uses—the vision of Kai Tak as vibrant, mixed-use community can become a reality. The important thing, according to Newsum, is getting it right. “Opportunities on this scale are so rare—it is critical that the opportunity is grasped and not wasted.”