One conservation area, two systems

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2011, 12:00am


There is no easy formula for conserving buildings with historical value, especially when they happen to lie in areas with high development potential. But the very different response to two high-profile projects - Central Market and Government Hill - provides food for thought. Both are part of the 'Conserving Central' project aimed at preserving heritage in the heart of colonial-era Hong Kong. But while one is advancing smoothly, the other has encountered resistance and appears to be deadlocked. Why?

The answer lies in the different approaches adopted for the projects. The Urban Renewal Authority, which has come under fire in the past, opted for a bottom-up approach when deciding how best to turn the 72-year-old wet market in a prime business district into an urban oasis for public enjoyment. It deserves credit for putting emphasis on tapping the views of experts and the public during the process. In addition to the establishment of an advisory committee, different surveys have been conducted to ensure the architectural firms shortlisted know what the public want.

Instead of being turned into a giant upmarket shopping mall, the Bauhaus style low-rise building is intended to become a different sort of attraction when it opens in 2016. We are told we can expect affordable eateries such as dai pai dongs, a roof garden, independent shops with character, and arts and cultural facilities. While some may be disappointed that the proposed swimming pool is to be dropped, the broad direction is a welcome one which will hopefully breathe new life into the rundown wet market; while recreating some vanishing characteristics of one of the oldest parts of our city. The efforts made to engage the public appear to have paid off.

However, officials are having more trouble getting the public to rally behind the Government Hill redevelopment project, which is much bigger and more complex. Progress could have been smoother had a more people-based approach been applied. The public consultation headed by the Development Bureau was on a much smaller scale. Despite strong opposition from some conservationists, officials appear determined to flatten one of the office towers to make room for a taller commercial building, which experts fear would destroy the architectural integrity of the historical complex.

More uncertainties lie ahead. The Antiquities Advisory Board is stepping in to see if the three office blocks at the old headquarters on Lower Albert Road should be given a grading; a move which may force the government to give greater weight to conservation.

There is no hard and fast rule on how to strike the right balance between development and conservation. But the two projects show there are lessons to learn.