Architectural History

Historic protection must apply to all buildings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2008, 12:00am

Governments are most vulnerable to criticism when they promise reforms yet are seen as being too slow or inadequate. The Tsang government may have been more responsive than previous administrations in trying to meet public demands for greater legal protection of heritage sites. But its efforts to put in place a more effective preservation policy are still lagging behind. The latest news shows it is still a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Yesterday, the Development Bureau formally declared Maryknoll Convent School a monument. This is a welcome development but hardly a surprise. For a long time, the girls' school in Kowloon Tong has been considered a prime candidate for monument status. Even without its newly accorded legal status, it is scarcely imaginable that anyone would dare tear down the school for redevelopment. It has, for decades, been a major heritage landmark in the heart of Kowloon. As part of the Catholic Church, it is one of the city's most sought-after elite schools. Sites such as this school are much easier to preserve when they are owned or run by charities, educational groups or government departments. They are not subject to developmental pressure or other money-making incentives.

But it is with private sites and buildings that the Achilles' heel of the system is most exposed. It emerged yesterday that fences have been put up around Jessville, a 77-year-old mansion in Pok Fu Lam, along with a provocative giant sign declaring a 'demolition contractor' is at work. This came after its owners backtracked on assurances that it would not be taken down. Jessville shows once again the urgent need for a more effective heritage policy to preserve significant buildings on private land.

It is reminiscent of what happened at the historic King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road. The owner of the Wan Chai site started demolition work, resulting in extensive damage. He was finally talked out of it by the government with a generous land swap. Jessville is repeating a familiar story.

The government first declared the mansion a temporary monument to save it from destruction, then withdrew it in February. After arguing it was an important heritage site, it then changed its mind by saying it was not so remarkable or historically significant after all. The U-turn is not only embarrassing but confusing to the owners as to the value of their property and their legal right to redevelop it. There is, however, no denying its elegance and striking presence. It would be a shame to see it torn down.

With a more transparent and efficient heritage policy, the government would not have vacillated in its decisions. A clear classification would have removed any uncertainty so the public and the mansion's owners would know what to expect. To save it, the government may now have to dig into its deep pockets again.

The government has promised to introduce heritage impact assessments, based on current environmental impact studies, and to establish a new heritage commissioner. As the case with Jessville shows, it is essential that such assessments apply to all projects, not just government ones, and have similar powers as their environmental counterparts. This is the stick.

The carrot, however, must be that adequate funds and land supply be available to compensate owners for their loss of developmental profits from their land. Private property rights must be fully respected - but they must also be balanced with the public interest to see important heritage preserved.