Heritage policy needs balance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 1:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 1:18am

Preserving built heritage in Hong Kong is a tough balancing act; not only because the city is torn between an awakening consciousness of the past and a strong appetite for development. The challenge becomes even bigger when financial, environmental and other concerns are taken into account. That explains why some projects risk being abandoned, or are still gathering dust on the drawing board.

The Central Market revitalisation plan and the proposed boutique hotel on The Peak are the latest examples. Dubbed the Urban Floating Oasis, the former wet market built in Bauhaus architectural style is set to provide some 1,000 square metres of open space in the heart of the business district by 2017. But the project cost has tripled to HK$1.5 billion as a result of delays caused by lawsuits. The Urban Renewal Authority said the project might have to be scaled down, citing financial pressure. Separately, the proposal by a private developer to convert a 99-year-old colonial mansion on Lugard Road into a hotel may also be scrapped, due to restrictions imposed by the authority. The Town Planning Board may think it is necessary to minimise the adverse impact on residents and visitors in the area. While there are valid issues concerning traffic and the environment, the solutions should not come at the expense of commercial viability. Some conditions imposed by the board are so stringent - like limiting daytime traffic and banning onsite food and beverage services - that they are effectively killing off the venture.

Whether it is worthy to spend more on the Central Market is open to debate. For those who have been yearning for more breathing space in the concrete jungle of Central, the extra HK$1 billion may still be considered value for money. But the authority chief is not wrong to ask whether the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Clarity and consistency are crucial to any policy. The two cases suggest our heritage policy has yet to strike a proper balance between conservation and development.