The government should work with Hong Kong Disneyland Resort to decide how best to use an adjacent plot of land the theme park giant has surrendered the rights to develop, advisers and planners say, although the terms of the initial contract sharply limit the possibilities.
Building flats on the waterfront parcel in northeast Lantau Island is off the table due to restrictions agreed upon in the deal struck more than two decades ago. Moving the city’s other themed attraction, Ocean Park, to the site in a bid to create a “super” tourist destination is also not permitted under the clauses.
While two government sources have told the Post the land would be used as a Covid-19 quarantine facility for the next few years, another insider said transitional housing for thousands of needy families could be a possibility afterwards, depending on whether the two sides could reach an agreement on altering the contract.
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The option to purchase the plot stretching across 60 hectares (148 acres) to the east of the park in Penny’s Bay expired on Thursday after the government decided against renewing it. The Walt Disney Company could not commit to building an expansion in the near future, sources had told the Post earlier.
But under what some observers have called a sweetheart deal, the government agreed to a raft of restrictions on how the site could otherwise be developed when it established its joint venture, known as Hongkong International Theme Parks, with Disney in 1999.
The deed of restrictive covenant ensures the fairytale world remains visually distinct from its surroundings and that the landscape is aesthetically compatible with the attraction.
The unused plot cannot be used for residential purposes, commercial facilities, hotels, other entertainment venues or theme parks. Any buildings erected must be less than 20 metres (66 feet) tall and only low-intensity use is permitted.
Despite the limitations, a range of facilities could still be constructed, including a park, an indoor aquarium, an arena, live theatres, government offices, restaurants or an exhibition centre, to name a few.
But ideas such as moving Ocean Park there, as previously suggested by tourism lawmaker Yiu Siu-wing, or creating residential developments as the Democratic Party earlier put forward, are not feasible under the current arrangement.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a barrister and member of the administration’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, said further discussion on relaxing the restrictions was needed if the government wanted to make better use of the land going forward.
“I guess the government has to reach a consensus with Disneyland to see if they can mutually agree to allow low-rise residential buildings to be built on the vacant site after it is no longer needed as quarantine facilities,” Tong said.
Although the government holds a 53 per cent share in the joint venture with Disney, it should still respect the spirit of the contract, he added
The Post has reached out to the Walt Disney Company for comment.
Ivan Ho Man-yiu, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design, said the government had signed a very “unfavourable” deal that agreed to a host of limitations and restrictions on land use.
“The piece of land is very remote, which may need a lot of logistics and transport planning until it can be used for long-term development such as housing or other land uses,” Ho said.
“But the government should work on it, even if it means the government may breach some terms and leads to a legal dispute, as the city has been facing a severe scarcity in land resources.”
The height restrictions go beyond Penny’s Bay. The restricted zone covers Sunny Bay, Discovery Bay and extends to parts of the nearby islands of Hei Ling Chau and Kau Yi Chau, where the government has proposed reclamation. The limits range from 50 metres to 300 metres (164 feet to 984 feet), depending on the distance from the park.
Disneyland agreed to ease height limits at Kau Yi Chau, increasing it from 110 metres to between 130 and 140 metres in 2017 when the government gave HK$5.45 billion (US$703 million) for an expansion within the theme park’s existing grounds.
The relaxed height restrictions were reflected in the blueprint of a massive reclamation project east of Lantau Island, announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the following year.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong Disneyland’s option on next-door site will not be renewed, as park ‘could not commit to near-term expansion’
- Coronavirus: Hong Kong Disneyland to reopen this week with social-distancing curbs, while travel sector representatives seek more funding