Cost fears place future of historic Central building in doubt

With Final Appeal Court taking ex-Legco home, its current heritage site is not appealing to tenants

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 11:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 4:27am

Maintenance costs and structural worries are putting off at least two potential new tenants of the historic former French Mission building in Central.

The neoclassical building on Battery Path currently houses the Court of Final Appeal.

But the court will be relocated back to its former home next year – the Old Supreme Court building at 8 Jackson Road, which housed the Legislative Council from 1985 to 2011. Both buildings in Central are statutory monuments.

The government has opened the door for legal and related professionals to take over the 97-year-old former French Mission building.

The building’s future as part of a legal precinct was made clear last month when Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung announced that the Department of Justice would take it over, “with a view to increasing the space that can be provided to legal and dispute resolution institutions”.

He said the building, along with the former Central Government Offices, which will house the justice department and non-government law groups, would make up the legal hub.

The Law Society had expressed interest in using the building for extra office space because its Central headquarters are not big enough. However, president Ambrose Lam San-keung now says the society has decided against the idea because it fears it would be face hefty costs to maintain the heritage building.

“We have thought about it … But after further consideration we are afraid that maintenance would be very expensive because it is a monument,” Lam said.

He cited the example of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has spent more than HK$250 million revitalising the former North Kowloon Magistracy building in the first four years since it won the bid to use it.

But Lam said the Law Society would still be interested in using the building to receive overseas visitors because it was an icon of Hong Kong’s judicial system.

A spokeswoman for the justice department said it had yet to be decided who would be responsible for the building’s maintenance costs after its conversion for the new tenants.

She added that estimated conversion and maintenance costs would not be available until technical studies were done.

We are afraid that maintenance would be very expensive because it is a monument
Ambrose Lam, Law Society

The government’s plan for the building is in line with a proposal made in 2007 by the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre that it be turned into an arbitration and mediation centre. At the time, the centre lacked space. But now the centre says its situation has changed – and it is reconsidering its interest in moving into the heritage building.

“The circumstances now are different from those in 2007 … We are open to revisiting the issue, but at this stage we cannot say whether it is suitable or unsuitable,” centre chairwoman Teresa Cheng said.

The centre has since 2007 doubled its office space to 1,200 square metres; it now occupies an entire floor in Two Exchange Square in Central.

But it’s not just the space issue. Cheng said the centre also needed to consider the layout of the building – and whether it could be used for confidential arbitration hearings – and to determine whether it wanted to be part of the legal precinct. The cost of building upkeep was also an issue, she said.

A source with knowledge of the centre’s initial proposal said it might give up on the idea, because the internal structure of the building – which now houses courtrooms – would be unsuitable for arbitration meetings without major renovation work.

But the justice department spokeswoman said any renovation work would be kept to a minimum because of its status as a declared monument. Work would be limited to “necessary renovation and improvement works for use by law-related organisations” and to “bring the building up to the latest standard in terms of safety and barrier-free requirements”, she said.

However, there is still interest in the site. The Hong Kong Mediation Centre, which focuses on community-based dispute resolution, is keen to be part of the proposed legal precinct.

“Central is a prime location. There is a strong pool of lawyers there,” said the centre’s president, Francis Law Wai-hung.