A fiefdom confirmed

June 29th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Heritage No Comments »

Quarry Bay is not really called Quarry Bay, you know. If Swire Properties has anything to do with it, it would be universally known as Taikoo Place.

Well OK, Taikoo Place doesn’t quite cover the whole district, but the developer owns enough of it for the place to be considered its fiefdom.

Hong Kong’s full of fiefdoms, of course. Think Hung Hom and what comes to mind? Whampoa Gardens of course. And what is Discovery Bay if not Hong Kong Resorts’ own playground?

And soon enough, Wan Chai may as well be renamed Hopewell Town. Like termites, the developer has slowly but surely eaten up the properties of small homeowners until it becomes possible for big chunks of the districts to be redeveloped into Gozilla-scaled projects. The government helped too, wiping Wedding Card Street off the map so that the developer could turn an entire block into yet another sterilised home to branded chains – with perhaps a few nods to “social enterprises” if we’re lucky.

This fiefdom will soon expand by 1.09 million square feet as Hopewell has finally won permission to develop its mega hotel. It’s been cut down to 55 storeys, but anyone who’s experienced the traffic along Kennedy Road and Queen’s Road East would know that’ll be sufficient to make the congestion even worse. And where Hopewell’s fiefdom ends, Swire’s Pacific Place District begins.

Once upon a time many lower middle-class families can live in this area, which was full of little shops. Now they’ve been turfed out to make way for luxury apartments for sale or rent. Whatever the developers don’t own, they hold the management contracts to.  Is it any wonder the wealth gap continues to worsen?

Beware the incoming Chief Secretary

June 21st, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Heritage No Comments »

Advice for conservationists: if you want to win over Mrs Carrie Lam to your case, start putting across your case early.

Mrs Lam is no Mitt Romney; expect no flip-flops or U-turns from her. Once she’s decided on a course of action, her vision narrows and she will push it through against all opposition. It’s not that she doesn’t listen; it’s just that the extent to which she will listen depends mainly on two things: whether the case allows room for empathy on her part; and the kind of advice she hears first.

Hence, she supported the preservation of the street market in Wanchai, because she grew up in the area. She was also firm about saving Kin Yin Lei and some other heritage buildings, because after bulldozing, literally and metaphorically, through Queen’s Pier she woke up to the concept of heritage conservation and set about learning what she could about it. But, not being a property owner, she couldn’t relate to the anguish of minority owners who are deeply attached to their homes and live in fear of greedy developers, and gave the green light for lowering the threshold for compulsory sale from 90% to 80%.

Her hard-headedness enabled her to see the impossibility of continuing the small house policy, hence her efforts to get rid of it, but it also prevented her from seeing the value of conserving the West Wing on Government Hill. Demolishing West Wing contradicts her own new-found commitment to conservation, but someone must have impressed on her the value of the site, which, unlike the rest of Government Hill, sweeps right down into the heart of Central – long before conservationists started pleading their case.

Whether or not the next administration will cause a lot of conflict within society depends on whether concern groups understand Mrs Lam’s character enough to win her over before the developers and moneyed lobbies get to her first.

Architect’s plea to save Government Hill

June 9th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Heritage 1 Comment »

Below is the letter sent by Ronald Philips, who co-designed City Hall, to the Secretary for Development and Chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board. Mr Phillips is also a former colleague of West Wing architect John Aitken:

“As some one who witnessed close hand the well considered design and development of the CGO West Wing by an architect colleague in the Architectural office of the PWD in the 1950/60s, I wish to be one of those who makes a strong case for its Listing.

“As the co-architect for the City Hall my credentials are, I feel, valid and having just returned from Hong Kong and seen for myself the changes which have taken place in the urban area in the past ten years, there is in my opinion, a need to stand back and take stock.

“At the time of the City Hall a good deal of thought went into encouraging an urban city centre for pedestrians to freely enjoy. This was by seeing the new building as part of Statue Square, the Star Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier and the cenotaph. The sense of enclosure, on a fairly grand scale, was achieved by the surrounding buildings, ie The Supreme Court, Hong Kong Club, Mandarin Hotel, Queens Building and the major banks. In the main part the reprovision of all these buildings over the past 50 years together with the road underpasses, some measure of a sense of an urban Centre has been retained, but alas it has lost its dynamic with the relocation of the Star Ferry pier, and a good deal of thought and planning needs to be undertaken to recover this.

“You may ask what is the connection between this and the West Wing of the Central Government Offices? Well I see the removal of that building to replace it with yet another skyscraper as a further erosion of that pedestrian dynamic which is in such short supply in Hong Kong. The existing development formed by the East and West wings is of a human scale and one of the few remaining complexes in the central district that can boast of having such a quality. The green pedestrian access from Battery Path to and around St. John’s Cathedral en route to Hong Kong Park would be completely overshadowed, if not completely destroyed, by a high-rise building. Its overall effect upon the environs of Government House and the Botanical Gardens would be a disaster.

“I have said on previous occasions that the only constant in life is change and society has to move on or go into decline, but society also needs to respect and learn from its history, however, to the matter in hand. To replace a well-designed building which responded to its original brief whilst architecturally and environmentally achieving all the attributes which I have outlined I consider would be completely wrong and I strongly urge that it be given Listed status.

R J Phillips MA, RIBA”

Blue House Festival

June 2nd, 2012 atam Posted in Heritage No Comments »

Until June 16 you can pop down to the Blue House to catch a series of activities designed to offer the public a taste of life in Hong Kong past.

Blue House and its “siblings”, Orange House and Yellow House, are located in the cul de sac opposite the now-decimated Wan Chai Market. The entrance to the cul de sac is marked by the shoebox development Queen’s Cube that developer Nan Fung had to take off the hands of the Urban Renewal Authority after the two failed to find takers for its hyper-priced studio apartments.

Among the activities at the festival will be a guided tour, treats made by locals using ingredients sourced from the neighbouring wet markets and a puppet theatre.

Fortified structure declared a monument

July 12th, 2011 atam Posted in Heritage No Comments »

There’s a structure with actual links to Sun Yat-sen, but the tourist trail on Hong Kong Island won’t lead visitors to it.

The Antiquities Authority has declared a fortified structure at No 55 Ha Pak Nai in Yuen Long, which was built around 1910, a Grade One monument. It’s said to be the only remaining building in Hong Kong with a direct connection with Dr Sun’s revolutionary movement – effectively admitting that the Sun Yat-sen trail in Central has tenuous links with Dr Sun at best. After all, where’s the school he attended now; or, for that matter, the house where he’d stayed?

The declaration coincides with the centenary of the 1911 Revolution; cue fanfare and tourists bussed in for the obligatory photocalls. You just hope that, given its remote location, it won’t be turned into another 1881 Heritage.

Government Hill is not for sale

July 4th, 2011 DesigningHK Posted in Heritage No Comments »

The Government wants to sell a large portion of “Government Hill”, the site of the current Government offices, to a private company for an office development and public car park. The argument used is that Hong Kong is short of office space, and businesses are suffering under sky rocketing rents.

We agree with both facts, but Government Hill is not the solution: Hong Kong needs 8 million square meters of Grade A office space and not a mere few thousand. To address market needs the Government will have to resort to a radical review of development around the harbour.

Twenty NGO’s have submitted an application to the Town Planning Board to rezone the Central Government Offices site to a special heritage zone. They want to retain “Government Hill” for future generations. Designing Hong Kong is one of the proponents.

To counter the Government’s arguments, a “Government Hill Compendium” with substantial historical documents, academic research and articles, photographs and other information has been submitted. This collectively shows the value of the site to the community since the 1840’s. It is the most comprehensive collection of information relating to “Government Hill” ever accumulated – see: http://www.governmenthill.org.

The Government response to our submission has been negative. This bias was to be expected as the Government itself decided on the sale of the site in the first place. The NGO’s who propose to save Government Hill are greatly concerned that the Town Planning Board’s review of its application will be biased too: the Chairman of the Town Planning Board is the Permanent Secretary of Development, the Secretariat of the Town Planning Board is the Planning Department, and all the members are appointed by Government!

We call on your support for a fair consideration of the application and for the retention of “Government Hill” in public ownership as a heritage site. Support “Government Hill is not for sale” campaign on-line on or before the Town Planning Board deadline: Tuesday 5 July 2011. It only takes a minute of your time.

Object to West Wing redevelopment

March 11th, 2011 DesigningHK Posted in Building, Heritage No Comments »

Government Hill, where the current Central Government Offices are situated, has been the seat of government since the early days of Hong Kong. The government wants to sell a large portion of Government Hill to a developer who will demolish the West Wing and hollow out the hill to build a five-storey shopping mall cum car park with a 32-storey commercial tower on top. Click here for link to Government plans.

The objections to this plan are simple: why generate more waste by demolishing a perfectly usable building when our landfills are full? Why add another commercial building and shopping mall at an already highly congested location?

The Government Hill Concern Group has proposed an alternative to the Town Planning Board: declare the entire area a heritage site, limit the building height of any new structures and keep it for public uses.

Complete the on-line comment form today. Click here: it only takes one minute!

The art of spin

December 30th, 2010 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Greenwash, Heritage No Comments »

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was credited with inventing the art of spin – coating nasty government policies and actions in nice soundbites that deflect criticism long enough for opponents to run out of time to do anything about it.

“B-liar”, as he came to be known, may no longer be British Prime Minister, but when it comes to the art of spin he has no shortage of successors. Certainly in Hong Kong, where the government is deliberately slow in addressing important socio-economic issues such as the wealth gap, there is no lack of speed when it comes to spinning yarns to fool public opinion.

Two separate issues come to mind.

Thanks to the tenacity of our green NGOs, it has been discovered that the energy growth assumption that underpins the government’s climate change action agenda are inconsistent with current trends and poorly derived. According to the government-commissioned study, released after pressure from WWF, Friends of the Earth HK and Greenpeace, energy demand in Hong Kong will rise by 36.2% in 15 years even if the most aggressive emissions reduction plan is adopted. However, as the green groups pointed out, energy consumption in Hong Kong had risen only 6.3% between 1998 and 2008.

The government consultant’s justification for its estimate was that many low-cost solutions were not considered for Hong Kong because “they are not considered to be commercially viable within the necessary timeframe”. For that, read: “there isn’t the government will to implement the necessary regulatory and institutional changes because these will upset vested interests.”

No wonder the government argues we’ll need so much more nuclear energy, and this is the basis on which the “climate change action agenda” was drawn and a “public consultation” launched.

The other issue that amply illustrates the government’s command of the art of spin was its launch two years ago of the “Conserving Central” concept. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is. Never mind the oddity of saving a long-dead, aesthetically suspect structure that once housed Central Market while steamrolling through the destruction of a living, breathing – nay, bustling – Graham Street market; it now also wants to streamroll through the destruction of Government Hill – the only intact heritage precinct in Central – by selling part of Central Government Offices to developers.

Handsome literature and models have been prepared to persuade the public that this is part of its heritage conservation plans rather than another scheme to please the real estate lobby: it already envisages the development of a five-storey shopping mall and 32-storey office tower in place of the existing West Wing.

Apparently when conservation consultants recommended preservation of the whole precinct, which also covers St John’s Cathedral and the court buildings, it was the consultants’ recognition of the fact that West Wing was of little architectural merit that the government seized on as its justification for selling a chunk of the site to developers.  It may want to persuade the public that the old and new can coexist, but who would want Marine Police Headquarters Mark II?

People are opposed not only because they want to conserve the historical site in its entirety in order to maintain its context, but also because, for once, they can see through the spin and are not amused. Click here to read the petition against the redevelopment of Government Hill.

A victory for conservationists

December 11th, 2010 atam Posted in Earth, Heritage No Comments »

Perhaps, instead of lying down in protest at Henderson Land’s plans to build a playground for the rich in Nam Sang Wai, conservations should toast a rare victory at the wetland area instead this Sunday – and confer on how to deal with the developer’s next step as well.

The Town Planning Board has rejected Henderson’s application to grant it a three-year extension for the proposed development in Nam Sang Wai, a wetland area close to the Mai Po nature reserve.

The developer was granted rights to build 2,500 luxury homes and a nine-hole golf course on nearly 140 hectares of land there 14 years ago. According to a Planning Department official, the developer’s latest development plan is vastly different from the blueprint that was originally approved and the developer had been warned that the third extension would be the last one.

Would the developer appeal the decision? How would such an appeal be viewed by the board? Conservationists had better remain on standby.

Is GFA estimate the only problem?

December 10th, 2010 atam Posted in Building, Heritage No Comments »

Secretary for Development Mrs Carrie Lam offered a mea culpa of sorts when she explained the discrepancy between the government’s estimate of the gross floor area at the former Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui and the developer’s estimate.

In effect, she was blaming the government itself for making an estimate that turned out to be quite a bit lower than the GFA on which the subsequent development was based. But of course, she did qualify her explanation by saying that the figure mentioned in the subsequent tender document “was believed to have come from the figure mentioned in the planning brief”.

So was it the government’s fault, or did the developer play a trick? Doesn’t matter: to forestall any similar grilling by LegCo in the future, Mrs Lam said the government would simply avoid providing any figure in the first place.

“In future, in order to avoid misunderstanding, if the Government is to adopt this type of unique development mode again, that is preserving, restoring and revitalising existing buildings of historical value, and it involves the participation of the private sector through tender in the preservation and development of historical buildings, it may not be appropriate for the Government to provide an estimated GFA figure of these buildings in the tender document. The reason is that the GFA of the existing building to be preserved will not change and the tenderers can survey or assess the space of the existing buildings themselves,” she said.

In one sense, this is fair enough: the GFA of the original buildings isn’t going to change. But given the track record of Hong Kong’s developers, should they be trusted to provide an accurate GFA figure?

But that’s not the only problem. Perhaps more worrying is what Mrs Lam said about the vetting procedure for this project: “the tender scoring criteria placed more emphasis on the technical proposal, including whether the proposal could achieve the heritage preservation and restoration objectives, the conservation of the surrounding environment and layout of the historical buildings, whether the proposed development concept was creative, the feasibility of the proposal and its tourism and economic benefits, the tenderers’ experience in heritage conservation and heritage tourism projects, etc. Based on the various criteria mentioned above, the assessment panel gave every tender a score and an overall assessment in examining, analysing and selecting the tenders submitted.”

And the technical weighting, according to Mrs Lam, was 75% of the tender evaluation, against 25% for the price.

Now, folks, how do you rate the “revitalisation” of the Marine Police HQ on heritage preservation, conservation (!) of the surrounding environment, creativity/kitschiness and the tenderers’ track record of treating a heritage project with respect?

Either the other tenders were so atrocious that the winning bid actually looked good in the assessors’ eyes, or there was something seriously wrong with the experience, taste and appropriate qualifications the assessors brought to bear on the tender evaluation. And if they could make the kind of judgement that has bequeathed Hong Kong 1881 Heritage, what’s there to prevent them – or the government’s appointment of them or those like them – from passing the same judgement on submissions for other heritage projects in the future?

That’s a bigger concern. If only the councillors aren’t so short-sighted.