Selling out

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 December, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong citizens have a right to honesty from government ministers and officials, who are their employees, yet that is not what they are getting with regard to the proposal to sell the West Wing of the Central Government Offices to a developer. It is frankly dishonest for the government to misrepresent the sale of a community asset for the construction of a 32-storey office building and a five-storey shopping centre, with a garden on top, as one of their eight initiatives for 'conserving Central'. This is in an area quoted in their heritage consultant's report as being 'perhaps Hong Kong's last remaining real heritage precinct', whose buildings 'are set within one of the few 'green lungs' in Hong Kong'.

The atmosphere of Government Hill - with the government offices, cathedral, Government House, the former French Mission Building, Battery Path and Lower and Upper Albert roads, as well as the adjacent Botanic Gardens and Bishop's House - is overwhelmingly one of tranquility, dignity and harmony. It is a wonderful resource for Hong Kong, both for those who live and work in the area and those who pass through it going to work. For a crowded city like Hong Kong, the existence of such a low-rise green area is of inestimable value.

In recognising its value, the consultant urges the creation of a 'special protected area' to acknowledge the wooded spaces and low-rise buildings on Government Hill, as well as Hong Kong Park and the church site. He says: 'The site itself and the history associated with it is seen as being as significant, possibly more so than the buildings.'

The area has been associated with government since Hong Kong's foundation. In considering the site, he states that 'any commercial development now seems to be inappropriate' but indicates that a new public garden in the place of the bulk of the West Wing would be a fine resource for this central area of Hong Kong. Thus, the government's proposals for a commercial development are contrary to their consultant's advice.

The consultant emphasises the significance of the low height of the Central Government Offices, noting that they were designed to protect the views from Government House. He also pointed out that this low height and surrounding vegetation link the offices with the adjacent sites to form one low-rise and green area.

It is therefore a result of its history and conscious planning that the city has inherited this marvellous green area in central Hong Kong, which our officials are now so intent on destroying.

The government's track record of selling a heritage building to a developer - namely the former Marine Police headquarters at Tsim Sha Tsui - is appalling, with the developer destroying the setting, greenery, history and meaning of the site purely for profit. It appears that, once a heritage building is sold, the community has little control over what happens to it.

Demolishing the West Wing of the Central Government Offices and constructing the office building and shopping centre would generate huge noise and dust pollution, plus substantial waste. There would be significant demolition and construction traffic in Central over a prolonged period. The development would probably bring significant extra traffic to the area, over the small number of officials' cars at present. This would further worsen pollution in Central and further damage the health of our children and elderly, not to mention that of workers in Central.

This would hardly be of concern to the developer, but should be to our planners. Surely planning should be about people, and not just how to further enrich developers at the expense of our health, environment and heritage? Hong Kong is already losing residents owing to concerns for their children's health and the deteriorating environment.

The proposals would demean the historic and current functions of the building and site. They would be out of place in the beautiful and tranquil setting. The height of the tower would destroy the sense of space and setting of the heritage precinct, as well as the tranquil beauty of Lower Albert Road, an area where the five-storey West Wing is screened by trees. A glass office tower would be out of place in the area where the present buildings feature natural granite and are of fine proportion.

Widening Lower Albert Road for vehicle entry and exit at the rear of the tower would destroy its tranquility and nature. Widening Ice House Street would destroy the historical masonry retaining wall, with its mature trees, as well as the character of the street, the setting of the historic Duddell Street steps.

The government's leaflet portrays a 'green' frontage to the shopping centre, but experience of the destruction at the Marine Police headquarters suggests that the community would probably get just another designer shopfront.

The area is really a community asset and this is reflected in the planning intent of its zoning of 'government, institution or community' - that is, to serve the needs of local residents or the city. Hong Kong has little left in the way of heritage, or green lungs, particularly in urban areas. The government should not sell such a significant and tranquil community asset for developer profit, nor should its zoning be changed from 'community' to 'commercial'.

Following their consultant's recommendation, the government should, without delay, make it a special protected area. Officials should then have a full and meaningful consultation with the community about the use of the area. Surely the government should be looking at a vision for the whole area, which could include the chief executive relinquishing use of Government House (as did his predecessor) and opening it up, along with its beautiful gardens, to the community. This would be the centrepiece of a heritage and garden area stretching from Battery Path to the Botanic Gardens.

Ken Borthwick is a Hong Kong-based conservation architect who has worked or advised on heritage conservation in Hong Kong, Britain and Norway