Peak residents angry over land swap aimed at saving historic Hong Kong mansion

Exchange would save 127-year-old mansion, but neighbours say new site will harm environment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 8:25am

Residents on The Peak are mounting a campaign against a government land swap devised to save a 127-year-old mansion from destruction.

A piece of green belt land adjacent to Aberdeen Country Park with views of the South China Sea was selected by the owner of the mansion at 23 Coombe Road ahead of nine other plots, the locations of which officials have refused to disclose.

Occupants of neighbouring Carolina Gardens say the proposal - under which 49 trees would be felled to make way for a luxury house of up to 6,000 sq ft - will spoil the environment and disrupt traffic.

"We are not against the preservation of old buildings, but development encroaching on a country park," said Leo Barretto, chairman of the Incorporated Owners of Blocks A and B of the private residential estate.

The Coombe Road mansion, given grade one historic status in 2011, was built in 1887 as the residence of Irish soldier-turned-barrister John Joseph Francis and is probably the oldest surviving European house on The Peak, according to official records.

The present owner, a company under Hutchison Whampoa, had earlier obtained Buildings Department approval to demolish the mansion for redevelopment.

It applied to the Town Planning Board last month to rezone the 1,100-square-metre substitute site for low-density residential development.

A tree survey commissioned by the developer found 67 trees on the site, including a dead one. In its supporting application documents, it proposed that 16 would be transplanted nearby while 49 would be felled "mainly due to their poor form and a low predicted transplantation survival rate". In compensation, 34 other trees would be planted.

Ten potential sites had been identified for the land swap during the negotiation process and three were selected for further examination before the present proposed site was chosen, the documents also revealed.

Carolina Gardens residents have collected more than 420 signatures from residents, hikers and users of playgrounds in the area to be submitted to the board to express their objection. They also criticised the developer for not having conducted a transport impact assessment.

District councillor Ivan Wong Wang-tai is sceptical of the plan. "Why did the developer just pick this site with a sea view out of 10 choices?" he asked.

A spokeswoman for the Development Bureau refused to disclose the locations of the nine other sites considered. "We have explored, on a confidential and no-commitment basis, various preservation-cum-development proposals with the owner's representatives of 23 Coombe Road," she said.

A full market-value premium would be assessed by the Lands Department if the land swap materialised, she added.

Hutchison Whampoa declined to comment.