There was widespread relief last year when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen unveiled initiatives to preserve Government Hill, the centre of administration since early colonial times.
Yesterday the government revealed a plan to sell a third of the site to a developer for a 32-storey office tower and underground mall. There are now fears that the landscape could be spoiled and that a planned public garden might end up as the new property's backyard.
The west wing of government headquarters at the junction of Queen's Road Central and Ice House Street will be put up for sale after civil servants move to the new headquarters at Tamar at the end of next year.
Acting permanent secretary for development Gracie Foo Siu-wai said the wing would be demolished to make way for the 150-metre office tower and podium, while a mall and car park would be excavated beneath Lower Albert Road.
'This is a response to the market's need for quality office buildings.
'The west wing has low architectural and heritage value and we should take the opportunity for redevelopment,' Foo said, citing a government-commissioned study on the heritage value of the headquarters complex.
But Bernard Lim Wan-fung, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design, said the government had failed to address the historic significance of the site.
'Officials must take care that the future design will pay due respect to the historic site ... but I see no such consideration in the brief presented today,' he said. 'The new building can't be just like another office block in Central, with a dull glass facade. For example, why can't the west wing facade be preserved and the tower built behind it?'
The west-wing site, one-third of the entire complex, will be sold by tender or auction.
Surveyors estimate the 5,720 square metre site, providing 42,000 square metres of gross floor area, could fetch between HK$4.5 billion and HK$7.2 billion. The tower will be about 20 metres shorter than the nearby HSBC and Standard Chartered buildings.
Foo said the developer would be required to turn two-thirds of the area into a public garden the same size as Statue Square. But when asked whether the government would manage the garden she said only that 'relevant departments' were discussing the issue.
Assistant director of planning Phyllis Li Chi-miu said the government would 'do its best' to make sure the public had free use of the garden without the problems experienced at Times Square in Causeway Bay, where for years property management staff forbade visitors from sitting in the privately managed public open space.
Lawmaker Tanya Chan, who is a Central and Western District councillor, said she had objected all along to redeveloping the west wing because it would destroy the integrity of Government Hill.
'I'm also worried the huge public open space, if privately managed, will become the backyard of the office property,' she said.
Asked whether the mall would become just another luxury Central shopping centre, Foo said what it offered would depend on the market.
The tower will be joined to office blocks in Central by a footbridge and will be set back from the site boundary to enable the road to be widened. Eleven listed trees will be preserved.
Foo said the tower would be placed at the tip of the site to avoid obstructing views from Government House. The government will keep the central and east wings of the headquarters and allocate them to the Department of Justice for offices.
The heritage study mentioned by Foo recommended that the government set up a management company to maintain close control over the redevelopment due to the site's historic significance, but this was not mentioned yesterday.
The study also suggested that if the west wing was demolished, elements such as the bronze entrance doors, granite and marble cladding and hardwood door sets be salvaged for use elsewhere and that a law be introduced to protect the entire Government Hill from further development.
The three wings, in the functionalist architectural style, were deliberately designed in the 1950s as low-rise to preserve the harbour view from Government House.
The combination of the government offices, Government House, a cathedral and the French Mission Building, gave rise to the name of 'Government Hill' as early as 1842.
Surveyor Tony Chan Tung-ngok said the site would be very attractive to developers because there had been very little Grade-A office supply in Central for years. The site could fetch HK$16,000 per square foot and could bring the government land revenue of HK$7.2 billion.
Pang Shiu-kee, managing director of SK Pang Surveyors, said the site could cost at least HK$10,000 per sq ft.
The redevelopment plan will be put on display for two months in the planning and infrastructure exhibition gallery of the Murray Road car park building for public comment.
The Democratic Party's spokesman on development affairs, Lee Wing-tat, said the ground level of the tower should also accommodate open space like that of the HSBC Tower to ease pedestrian congestion in the area.
In the heart of the city
The West Wing site of the Central Government Offices is to be sold to the private sector for development.
The site covers about: 5,720 sq metres
1/3 will be taken up by a 32-storey tower housing offices and a mall
2/3 will be public open space
The West Wing was built in 1959, the largest building in the government complex
Source: Development Bureau