The demolition of historic Ho Tung Gardens could begin in a month, heritage experts fear, after a one-year protection order on the mansion on The Peak expires today without further action from the government.
The administration had been expected to declare the building a monument, and its failure to do so left one government heritage adviser shocked.
Yesterday, the Development Bureau made a direct appeal to Ho Min-kwan, owner of the gardens and granddaughter of tycoon Robert Hotung, for more time before she starts work on a HK$7 billion development.
'The law does not allow an extension of the provisional monument status [expiring today] given to Ho Tung Gardens a year ago,' the bureau said. 'But we believe the owner understands that many Hongkongers, like her, cherish the gardens and that she will not start any work that would damage the gardens' integrity before the chief executive and the Executive Council make a decision.'
Ho (pictured), who was not in Hong Kong yesterday, said she 'felt quite relieved'.
'I hope the government will respect private property rights and development rights,' she said. 'When I return, I will carry on the negotiations with [government] departments about the gardens' future development.'
The government could still proceed with the declaration of monument status after the provisional order expires. But Ho could seek consent to commence demolition from the Buildings Department, which would have to grant the application within 28 days unless it had grounds not to do so, such as safety concerns.
The mansion's status as a grade-one historic building does not protect it against development. Historians say the estate is an example of Chinese Renaissance architecture and a reminder of Hong Kong's colonial heritage. Hotung, a millionaire from his work with Jardines, was the first non-European allowed to live on The Peak. He built the mansion at 75 Peak Road in 1927.
Dr Ng Cho-nam, a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, is shocked by the government's failure to act. 'When we in the board were asked in October to endorse the monument plan, we were told that this was to give time for Exco to go through the procedures. We unanimously supported it.' Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said the government had discredited the board by failing to act on its recommendation.
'Officials must now explain what happened. If they think taxpayers are reluctant to compensate the owner, they should ask the public and review the antiquities process, which has hardly engaged the people,' she said.
Ho is adamant she will demolish the main building to make way for 10 cottages, one of which she plans to live in. She rejected an offer to swap the land for a development site elsewhere, and suggested preserving a long, narrow strip of land where a pagoda, a swimming pool and a pavilion stand. But officials thought the preserved area would be too small.
A source familiar with the negotiations said officials had made another offer, allowing Ho to build one or several high-rise blocks behind the main building, but Ho appeared not to be interested.
Lee Ho-yin, another member of the antiquities board, said it was powerless. 'I hope more lawmakers, who are supposed to represent the people, can speak up.'