Transit Oriented Commercial Development

During our 4-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way home from Vietnam, Katlin and I decided to squeeze in one last look at the city. We bought round-trip tickets on the Airport Express train ($90 HK/about $11 US) and visited Kowloon Station. The Elements shopping mall atop the transit hub is an often-mentioned example of large-podium private development that turns an impenetrable wall on the streetscape.

Here’s some of what we saw:

The transit station is capped with a private development that includes an upscale shopping mall, a hotel and numerous massive housing towers rising out of the retail base.

We also checked out the public plaza that the developer was required to provide. Located on the third floor above street level, it was quiet and sterile, and for the most part unpopulated.

Katlin remarked that its quietness could be an asset by providing a respite from the street chaos, but we agreed it would first need to be activated with uses to attract pedestrians and keep them there. A good place for a community garden, maybe? A public performance square? Even a coffee or tea shop with outdoor seating would generate some interest.

It was somewhat confounding to find street entrances from inside the mall, so we only had time to locate and visit one of them: the North Entrance.

We had intended to walk around outside to view the podium as passersby see it, but quickly found that what little pedestrian environment was available ended right at the edge of the development’s circular driveway:

Katlin stands where the sidewalk ends.

Flipping back through my notes, I found a reference to a qualified term that Dr. Sujata Govada shared with us last week: Transit Oriented Commercial Development. TOD like the Kowloon station seems to be designed to bring people effectively in and out of a commercial environment, and to retain them there as long as possible.

Great transit goes a long way. However, great Transit Oriented Development ensures that riders are given an environment they can activate and interact with. Done well, it becomes the centerpiece of a neighborhood. Done with less sensitivity, the exterior can become a void to the streetfront, and the street life can seem alien to the sterile interior.

Govada also told us that block-style megadevelopments — particularly those that swallow up existing portions of granular street grid — have been a major cause of the Hong Kong population’s awakening interest in planning and urban design. Activists in this realm are seeking a middle ground that allows the private sector flexibility to innovate, and generates the land rents needed to support transit station development below, while still maintaining a minimum standard to preserve the life at the neighborhood level.

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