測量師時代 SURVEYORS TIMES

Issue: 2012.05

Plan Ahead or Blotched Conservancy instead

The concept of “collective memories” is a relatively new one in the territory, and it has fueled much attention on the needs for conservancy in Hong Kong. It is now also the foremost reason against tearing down older buildings for urban renewal, thus it is of utmost importance that the criteria for preservation should be compared against the cost to the society as a whole for a meaningful discussion of how and to what extent should we retain a piece of Hong Kong’s heritage.

Keeping a building for its historical significance or artistic merits is only the start of a long process, and without relevant amenities the results can be far from optimal. Take Western Market at Sheung Wan, this early 20th Century construction with its brick walls and granite arch-doors is an exquisite example of Edwardian building, yet the lack of space outside, the clutter of tram tracks and other traffic are prevention enough against meaningful inspection by both passers-by and serious admires. In turn, the full economic potentials of the rejuvenated market building cannot be realized. It is a classic example of wasting precious resources only due to half thought-out conservation plans.

Another brick structure at 8, Waterloo Road in Yau Ma Tei is even more revelatory in demonstrating a glaring absence of foresight. It was originally a compound of 3 buildings built in 1895, but 2 were later torn down to make room for a refuse collection point. The lone survivor went thru various transformations after Second World War from government offices to a shelter for drug addicts. It was only in Year 2000 when the authorities suddenly realized the historic value of this desolate structure. The subsequent change of urban renewal plans kept this beautiful house literally huddling under a high-rise residential block, only a ghostly existence with no sense of beauty or dignity. There is little, if any, economic worth in the final project, and it will always remain a sore reminder of the government’s piece-meal approach to preserving our cultural heritage.

The government’s oversight is bad enough for the case of public buildings, whereas for private property the process of conservation takes an even more nightmarish turn. Anyone passing by the junction of Lai Chi Kok Road and Tong Mei Road cannot fail to notice the corner building “Lui Seng Chun”. Built in 1931, the owners of this four-storey structure, in great generosity, approached the government and donated the deeds. Looming eerily empty since 1980s, one cannot help but wonder if renovation would have made a smaller dent in public coffers should the government took the initiative in preserving this monument by subsidizing maintenance. How much of the 28 million bill can be saved after a two-decade wait is anybody’s guess, but it is certainly a revealing hint of other less unfortunate cases. Even so, this is one of the very few happy exceptions to the long history of conflicts, all due to the absence of a coordinated and long-term strategy.

For the owner of a valuable piece of land, the thought of losing claim to redeveloping one’s own property because of a sudden declaration of Historical Heritage status is reason enough to hasten the building’s demise, and it is extremely unfair to point a blaming finger at their “selfishiness”. Case in point is King Yin Lane. Owners had proposed a land swap with the government and received no answer before selling the land. Closure of sale did not prompt government action, and only after partial demolition plus public outcry was the site declared monument. It may cost more tax payers’ money to negotiate a new deal, and parts of the building and its interior are already torn down and restoration is impossible.
By the same token, conservation of Ho Tung Gardens also sent a chill down the spines of monument owners. The government refused point blank to negotiate remedies, and turned a deaf ear to a “Murray House” style donation of architecture to be re-erected elsewhere. Private property owners have no obligation and certainly no inclination to surrender a multi-billion project in the name of conservation, and the plight of Sir Hotung’s estate teaches a valuable lesson: the worse shape a property is in, the less chance of losing its economic potentials. This would run contrary to the public’s wish to preserving a piece of Hong Kong’s history.

Should the government serious about conserving cultural and historical buildings, it should not react belatedly after citizens voice their concerns. It should start going through the streets in Hong Kong, compile a list of potential monuments, contact owners to negotiate a maintenance and compensation package for private properties. Only by planning and acting ahead in time can the authorities fully evaluate the historical value against the cost of preservation, and come up with the best plan to conserve and rejuvenate an extremely valuable piece of property. Scrambling for a quick and harebrained “plan” after dissent from conservationists is not the way to a meaningful protection of Hong Kong’s past and future.

 

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