Congregation members hit out over plan for high-rise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

Senior members of the St John's Cathedral congregation have individually spoken out against the government plan's to build a high-rise on the edge of Government Hill beside the site of the cathedral.

They fear excavation and construction will degrade the surroundings of the cathedral and undermine its foundations, and that the noise will disturb church services and the area's tranquillity.

'There is too much crowded development in Central. Another high-rise here will prevent polluted air from dissipating and will worsen the canyon effect,' a trustee of the cathedral, Eric Bohm, said.

Responding to questions from the South China Morning Post yesterday, Bohm, chief executive of the environmental group WWF Hong Kong, said he was concerned that the area would be swamped with tall buildings. 'The best thing to do would be to turn the entire space into a green park. Otherwise, please scale down the new development,' he said.

Barrister Edward Laskey, a member of the cathedral choir, said any development should be sympathetic to the spiritual as well as physical stability of the church. 'People come to enjoy the restful atmosphere, whether or not they are Christians or Anglican Christians.'

The government has toughened its stance on the redevelopment plan. Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced in his budget speech that the land sale of the west wing of the Central Government Offices would go ahead, without disclosing results of a public consultation on the redevelopment proposal.

Tsang wooed business-sector support at an office supply seminar this month, emphasising that office land in Central continued to be in keen demand although new office hubs were being set up in Kowloon.

The grouping of the government offices, Government House, St John's Cathedral and the French Mission Building gave rise to the name Government Hill as early as 1842.

The government proposes that the west wing, one of three low-rise buildings designed in the 1950s to preserve the harbour view from Government House, be replaced with a 32-storey office block that would yield 42,000 square metres of floor space and an underground car park.

While historians, urban planners and conservation groups have campaigned against the project for months, the Anglican Church, which is negotiating with the government a plot ratio transfer for its redevelopment of the Sheng Kung Hui compound, also in Central, has so far taken a less critical stance.

Officially, it has only expressed concerns about potential blocking of an access road. Bohm said the church had written to the government on this. 'It will be difficult for trucks to come by, especially when there are activities and funerals going on.'

Gordon Jones, former registrar of companies and a congregation member since 1973, has written to the Town Planning Board to support the Government Hill Concern Group's proposal to rezone the area as a heritage precinct. The matter will be discussed by the board on May 6. The group has gathered about 200 supporting signatures from church members and 2,000 from the public.

Jones said of Government Hill: '[It's] a rare collection of ecclesiastical and government buildings which have been in virtually continuous use since the founding of Hong Kong.' It was unique and had to be respected. He criticised the plan to sell the land to a developer to build offices as 'very ill-conceived', saying the site should remain in public ownership.

He challenged the claim that the project would help address the shortage of grade A office space, arguing that new office accommodation should be decentralised to Kai Tak, Kwun Tong, North Point and Tsuen Wan to help urban renewal.

Jones was also worried that excavation near the cathedral, a declared monument built in 1849, would degrade the environment and affect the cathedral's foundations and stability.

'I consider it essential that before any development proceeds, the government undertake at its own expense, with full involvement of the relevant members of the cathedral, a number of whom have the relevant professional and technical expertise, a comprehensive structural and geotechnical assessment,' he said.