Going Underground: Do plans for Kowloon Park’s subterranean space go far enough?

Jacqueline Wong, Director of Strategic Consulting for JLL's Valuation Advisory Services team, provides an assessment of the proposed underground network in Tsim Sha Tsui and how this might be developed to reach its full potential.

September 17, 2019

If you have ever tried to travel across Tsim Sha Tsui, by foot or by road, you know it is far from an easy task. Pedestrian and traffic congestion make covering even short distances troublesome, but a pilot study into the creation of an underground zone beneath Kowloon Park has the potential to ease the overcrowding above ground. The objectives of underground space development are to alleviate street-level traffic, enhance pedestrian access, and create a diversified retail destination. But it could go further—both literally and figuratively. 

Under the conceptual scheme, three storeys of underground space will be created under the Ground level. With another three storeys above the ground floor space, the whole development will be covering approximately 620,000 sq ft. This will comprise 185,000 sq ft of retail and food and beverage space, 185,000 sq ft ofcar parking spaces, 97,000 sq ft of community facilities and a further 150,000 sq ft of pedestrian passageways. 

When it comes to improving pedestrian access around the area, however, the current plan does not reach some desirable destinations. While the proposed space connects to Tsim Sha Tsui’s metro and existing subway system and its extensive 26 existing exits to local landmarks, sightseeing spots, and private commercial developments, it does not add anywhere meaningful to that list nor does it cross any streets apart from the exit to Kowloon Park Drive. This lack of connectivity undermines the project’s objective of alleviating congestion, since pedestrians exiting the underground space and crossing roads at ground level to reach their destinations will continue to interrupt the flow of traffic and vice versa.

While it may be controversial to propose connections with private commercial developments, these should not be dismissed out of hand, particularly at such an early stage. Integrating the project with nearby private destinations would further enhance its recognition as a community hub, and increase its economic value to the wider Tsim Sha Tsui area.

The Government should also make use of this opportunity to create a multiple transport hub in the Kowloon Peninsula. Like , many cities around the world—Osaka, Tokyo, Singapore, Montreal, and more — have successfully used underground spaces such as this to link multiple transport hubs, effectively reducing pressure on public transportation and road traffic for short journeys. Although these case studies were mentioned in the study digest, no such plans were adopted in the conceptual scheme. 

One of the newly proposed exits falls 200 metres short of joining up with Austin MTR station — a connection that would ease access to the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Express Rail Link, a key transport hub for the Greater Bay Area. Integration with Jordan MTR station also remains elusive. It is possible that there may be technical challenges to enabling these underground avenues, but these were not outlined clearly in study digest. 

Whatever connections are established, it is equally important that the Kowloon Park underground space is perceived as more than simply an extension of Tsim Sha Tsui’s subway system. Convenient, air-conditioned walkways alone will not be enough to attract users. The retail and community amenities currently planned should help to solicit pedestrians’ interest, but again there appears to be limitations to the scope of these.

The proposed design is for premises most closely resembling an underground mall. Community facilities will be housed at Upper Ground Level, with retail spaces concentrated in the storeys below around the Nathan Road, Austin Road and Tsim Sha Tsui MTR exits, leaving the proposed passageways to Haiphong and Kowloon Park Drive bare. In contrast, successful subterranean retail projects elsewhere in the world, such as Umeda Station in Osaka, have taken the form of underground shopping ‘streets’, where both retail spaces and restaurants can be found lining underground pedestrian routes to different destinations. These outlets have proven to encourage pedestrians to venture underground and have even become tourist destinations in their own right, in addition to easing pedestrian traffic above ground.

Indeed, there is precedent for such shopping ‘street’ in Hong Kong. Queensway Plaza, for example, with footbridges branching off itself to connect to neighbouring office buildings, the Pacific Place mall, and the Admiralty MTR station, etc., is used as a retail arcade as well as a passageway in the district. This pedestrian network has been shown to boost both the economy of the whole district and rental returns for Queensway Plaza itself. 

The government has also previously used land premium waivers to incentivise private developments to finance pedestrian footbridges or subways. Following these examples, potential connections from the Kowloon Park underground space to private developments should be left open for consideration in the future. 

The potential for the Kowloon Park project to help create an interconnected underground network in the southern Kowloon peninsula is undeniable. Tsim Sha Tsui’s reputation as one of Hong Kong’s commercial capitals and its existing underground system make the area the natural home for the city’s first subterranean shopping destination. In addition, the increasing importance of transport and cultural infrastructures in West Kowloon makes it ever more crucial to control congestion and traffic flows and create convenient pedestrian access from one part of the district to another. Connecting these two development hubs will therefore be crucial to the success of the Kowloon Park underground scheme—the government just needs to ensure that its plans go far enough.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on September 19, 2019