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China Property

Time to review Hong Kong conservation plan

“The scheme as it was launched has been very effective. But with any great plan, there’s always opportunity to review it… It’s perhaps time to look at it and what we can make better,” said Bob Dickensheets, vice-president of the Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2015, 8:07am

The revitalization scheme created by the Hong Kong government in 2008 has been a rare case of success in preserving heritage in a city where development pressures grow stronger, experts say. But some six years after its launch and in spite of its positive achievements, they claim it’s time to move forward.

To extend the preservation from buildings to streets or districts, create more flexible regulations, and devote more funding were some of the ideas suggested in the International Heritage Conservation Conference 2015 held on January 9.

“The scheme as it was launched has been very effective. But with any great plan, there’s always opportunity to review it… It’s perhaps time to look at it and what we can make better,” said Bob Dickensheets, vice-president of the Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong. “My feeling is it must continue on and must have greater funding.”

The transformation of the North Kowloon Magistracy in Sham Shui Po into a university was the first project to be completed under the new programme in 2010. “We are providing jobs, revenues and preserving the building… It has been immensely successful,” Dickensheets said.

A total of 16 buildings were revitalized so far under the scheme. According to the government, such programme aims to conserve and revitalise vacant historic buildings publicly owned that have limited commercial viability. Non-profit organisations apply to conserve and give a new life to buildings in the form of social enterprises.

The scheme is seen by Ester van Steekelenburg, urban planner based in Hong Kong and founder of the consultancy company Urban Discovery, as “one of the very few ways of preserving heritage in Hong Kong.” However, also in her opinion, its review would be very much welcomed.

The way forward, according to Steekelenburg, is to go beyond isolated cases, and eventually apply the same concept of “private-public partnership” in a larger scale. “Although I think this scheme is very successful, it’s still by building by building. I would say ‘take a street’,” she said, adding that such experiment could have happened in the Wedding Card Street.

“It’s a shame what is happening in that street, which has been basically erased. You have put these big towers there, something obviously very beneficial for the developers, but there would have been other ways to preserve it,” she said. “You can still put some towers, but then use the revenue to subsidise the preservation of another part of the street.”

The city’s director of architectural services, Leung Koon-kee, said the idea of revitalizing a street or a district, instead of just a building, is “a concept definitely worth pursuing.” However, “there are many aspects that we have to take into consideration, such as the supply of land for housing development,” he stressed.

In a report, where the government is advised to further develop and enhance the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, the London-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors [organiser of the conference] noted that for declared monuments “there ought to be a degree of flexibility in the application of the existing regulations,” since the current Buildings Ordinance is designed to regulate modern buildings.

According to RICS, it would be helpful if a set of heritage design guidelines could be put in place to enable a higher level of creativity. On the other hand, the government should also “take a leadership role in engaging local residents in reaching a workable compromise which is financially feasible for the operator,” reads the document.

Under the scheme, the government provides selected applicants, who they have to be non-profitable organisations, a one-off grant to cover the cost for major renovation to the buildings, nominal rental for the historic buildings, as well as one-off grant to meet the starting costs and operating deficits of the operator for a maximum of the first two years.

Creative complex Police Married Quarters (PMQ) – built in 1952 to house married police officers and their families. - and the Tai O Heritage hotel, which was a police station erected in 1903, are two other examples of successful projects under the revitalization programme.

According to the Development Bureau, there are at least three projects expected to be completed this year: the Old Tai Po Police Station; Stone Houses, in Kowloon; and the Blue House Cluster, in Wan Chai.