Zoning system can help save our heritage before it disappears
The legal framework for heritage conservation in Hong Kong is embodied primarily in the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance.
It might be effective at preserving important landmarks held under private ownership, but it is not applicable to all our historic buildings.
A property owner is prohibited from demolishing any monument, if it has been declared a monument under the ordinance. This halts all development on the site. Because such a move is unpopular with property owners, the government is very conservative when it comes to using the ordinance in this way. Therefore, only those private buildings that have great historical, architectural or social value, or are very rare, will get the protection of the ordinance.
The art deco Morrison Building in Hoh Fuk Tong Centre and the European-style mansion of Jessville in Pok Fu Lam, are the only two private buildings, so far declared as proposed monuments.
As the benchmark for declaration is very high, it leaves many other valuable buildings vulnerable to demolition. This fundamental weakness can be solved by having special zoning for heritage sites. This would be similar to the existing comprehensive development area, where development affecting an historic structure may be permitted subject to a planning application from the Town Planning Board. The board then looks at the merits of the proposal against the heritage value of the site.
This is not an attempt to stop developments, but it encourages developers to consider appropriate alternatives, such as partial preservation, or relocation of an historic building.
Some government heritage sites have already been rezoned as 'other specified uses', such as the historic block at the western entrance to Repulse Bay.
It is a successful case that allows modification of the heritage structure for profitable commercial use. This zoning system should now be extended to private properties.
It is one of the best ways of preserving our vanishing historic tenement buildings and colonial mansions.
Ricky Yau, Kowloon City