Public has stake in Government Hill
What should be done with Government Hill? Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged in his policy address two years ago to conserve the historic government complex in a way which would respect history and provide for public enjoyment. Now, even after plans for the development have been revised, critics argue they fail to honour the promise to conserve Central. There is a sharp divide between those who view the site as ripe for development and others who are determined to perverse it. Clearly, the answer lies in striking the right balance. But that is not easy to do without leaving both sides unhappy. Given the key location and historical significance of the site, the government should resist pushing through any development plan which lacks public support.
After a robust campaign by activists for a 'total conservation' approach, officials scaled down the part of the plan which involves commercial development. The revised plan still sees the low-rise west wing replaced by a 32-storey office block, although the much-criticised shopping mall proposal has been dropped. To enhance public access, the area designated for parks will be enlarged by 12 per cent to 7,600 square metres and be managed by the government instead of the future developer. These are positive steps to deal with concerns that the tree-lined oasis on Lower Albert Road, once the colonial seat of power, would become a jungle of skyscrapers and shopping malls.
But the news that the tender for the project will specify that the new office tower is to be primarily occupied by the Securities and Futures Commission and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has raised eyebrows. The intention is that they will take up two-thirds of the new tower, although neither has yet accepted the 'invitation' to relocate there. The government's argument that Central's image as a core finance centre would be boosted by the arrival on Government Hill of these two bodies is not convincing, especially as they are already located in Central. The shortage of Grade A office space in the area in coming years has already prompted a policy to turn East Kowloon into a second core business district. It does not make sense to continue building more and more offices in Central.
Conservationists say the government's concessions do not go far enough, while the reduced commercial elements may make the project less attractive for developers. But upsetting both sides does not mean the right balance has been struck. Instead of piecemeal tweaking, preserving the west wing for public use, perhaps with a historic flavour, may be a better answer. The public deserves to see this historic area developed in a way which makes us proud of it.