Concern at delays, changes to project on historic site

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am

The community remains in the dark about progress on refurbishing the remnants of Victoria Barracks, a half-year after it was supposed to have opened and about six months before the revised opening date.

Critics say the situation of the former explosives magazine site in Admiralty shows that standard measures are needed to monitor heritage sites handed over to private bodies for long-term use.

The grade-one-listed building was granted without a tender procedure to the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in 2005 for 21 years to develop a museum, lecture hall and performance venue.

The land lease required it to open in September last year, but the centre won permission to postpone the opening to September this year.

Although work has started, the master layout plan is not yet available for public inspection because it was amended by the society late last year and is awaiting approval by the Lands Department. Even antiquities advisers and the local district council are in the dark.

A department spokeswoman said it would continue to monitor construction progress, and might consider a further extension if work progress was satisfactory. It would not penalise the non-governmental organisation for the delay.

In reply to questions from the Post, the centre's interim executive director, Lo Li-ping, said the delay was due to major design changes.

These included modifications to a footbridge to preserve a green belt and a population of bats, and a decision to place mechanical equipment underground to preserve buildings. Termites and the discovery of four cannons added to the workload.

She said a consultation group would be formed closer to the soft opening in the third or fourth quarter of this year. It would meet the Central and Western district council annually to advise on public participation in activities at the centre.

The government was criticised for lacking transparency when it handed over the 7,800 square metre site - on Justice Drive, near the British consulate - to the society for HK$1,000.

Antiquities Advisory Board member Ng Cho-nam said the board had been told nothing about progress since the site was granted.

'The government has the duty to inform us, and there should be plans to show us how they changed the plan,' Dr Ng said.

Members of the Central and Western district council also complain they have not heard details of any changes.

'I wonder why it has not opened and how the building plan has been changed. They need to talk to us,' council vice-chairman Stephen Chan Chit-kwai said.

Councillor and lawmaker Kam Nai-wai, of the Democratic Party, said the government, when granting heritage sites for more than 10 years, should require annual financial and conservation reports, and a management committee, to ensure projects were properly monitored.

Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said the government should lay down all conditions in the lease, including an enforcement procedure for delays.

Public heritage sites allocated on a long-term basis or due to be allocated soon include Haw Par Mansion for a wine business; the King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road for a commercial venture; the former police married quarters on Hollywood Road for creative industries; and the Central Police Station compound, already handed over to the Jockey Club.

The Asia Society was founded in the United States in 1956 to bridge American and Asian culture. It has extensive international connections with political and business figures, with Hang Lung Group chairman Ronnie Chan Chi-chung as vice-chairman of its board.