Heritage protection: power to the people

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Located along a stretch of the curving, upscale thoroughfare of Hollywood Road stands a fairly nondescript, six-storey building. A casual passerby would barely notice it if it weren’t for the contrast with its immediate neighbour, the 169-year-old single-story Man Mo Temple – a declared monument.

The temple’s rundown companion is a vacant primary school that will soon be replaced– on the public dime – by a much more noticeable 18-storey youth hostel, located a mere 3.1 metres away. On 13 May, the Town Planning Board (TPB) approved an application by the site-manager, the not-for-profit Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, to conduct a minor rezoning, raise the school-site’s height restriction and better incorporate its intended function into the schedule of approved uses.

Though Tung Wah announced its plans over a year ago, media coverage has been relatively subdued. That is a shame, for the Man Mo Temple case clearly demonstrates the need for a greater public say in the protection of built heritage. After all, Tung Wah cleared this hurdle despite the fact that 95 percent of relevant comments submitted to the TPB argued against it. Critics worry about physical and aesthetic impacts on the temple.

Nonsense, claims Tung Wah! Under the terms of a 2009 Development Bureau technical circular, capital works projects located within 50 metres of heritage sites must undergo heritage impact assessments (HIA). The February 2015 Tung Wah HIA generally supports the construction, with some minor mitigation measures. However, the assessment writers make several snap judgments in response to critics’ concerns based upon little but faulty reasoning or their own opinions. For instance, in response to worries over the hostel’s aesthetic impact, the HIA states:

When viewed from Hollywood Road towards the project site, the Proposed Development with a 18-storey structure will stand amongst the cluster of high-rise residential developments along Hollywood Road which are of similar or even of a larger scale. At such, the Proposed Development will stand harmoniously with the surrounding development context, including the high-rise residential development in the mid-levels. Having said that, visitors of the Temple may raise concern on the visual impact of the Proposed Development.

The relevance of the hostel’s visual harmony with nearby high-rises in what should be an assessment of the project’s impact on Man Mo Temple is not explained. Meanwhile, none of the proposed mitigation measures suggest a height limitation, opposed by Tung Wah, that would reduce the two structures’ obviously augmented height disparity. As activists have also questioned the comprehensiveness of technical assessments undertaken by the hospital group,  this shortcoming over aesthetics may be the least of the temple’s long-term problems.

In sum, one can score this one point for the hospitals, zero for community members, who have little power to dispute a TPB decision or even contribute meaningful feedback, even when a protected structure may be at risk.

Tiniest of Baby Steps

At least, as a declared monument, Man Mo Temple enjoys statutory protection against demolition or alteration. In Hong Kong, most heritage structures are not so fortunate. Hundreds of sub-monument structures (Grade 1-3, with Grade 1 being the highest) are at the mercy of owners’ whims, particularly private owners. With no legal protection for these items, it is all the more important to give the local community a stronger say in their fate.

The government acknowledges public attention to this issue. The very requirement that an HIA be conducted for public works projects is the product of the 2007-08 Policy Address, delivered in the wake of high-profile protests over the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier, and Wan Chai’s Lee Tung Street, an example embodying intangible heritage. Although this reflects positively on the power of citizen activism, officials have been slow to develop institutionalised public participation mechanisms that might reduce the need for protests.

The Development Bureau, which holds the heritage preservation portfolio, is aware of the need for greater public involvement. For example, a private consultancy report commissioned for a 2014 government review of heritage policy points out that Hong Kong lags several jurisdictions in the scope of legal protection it offers to heritage buildings and in institutionalising measures for public nomination of heritage items.

The statutory Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), which was responsible for compiling recommendations based on the review, also supports enhanced public participation in its subsequent report. Yet few specifics are offered on how engagement would occur or on the degree of power the public might have over conservation decisions.

As for protection against demolition for Grade 1-3 structures, the AAB report is supportive but rejects immediate changes on the grounds of public disagreement, despite the fact that 55 percent of respondents to the policy review’s telephone survey backed greater restrictions on demolition or alteration. Of these backers, all supported statutory protection of at least Grade 1 buildings. If this is how the AAB treats public feedback in a standard consultation exercise, its tepid call for greater public involvement should come as no surprise.

No Room for Excuses

According to the Development Bureau, protection of built heritage must take into account “development needs in the public interest, respect for private property rights, budgetary considerations, cross-sector collaboration and active engagement of stakeholders and the general public.”

This statement hints at what many local conservationists know well – a battle has long existed between the aspirations of heritage conservationists and the interests of private property holders. This not only explains slow progress in extending protection to graded structures but also suggests one reason why genuine public empowerment in heritage protection has been slow to materialise.

Rarely mentioned is the subtle hypocrisy behind this call for balance. After all, the government has shown itself to be less supportive of private property rights in other contexts. For example, according to the 1999 Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance and the 2010 (Specification of Lower Percentage) Notice an owner of at least 80 percent of many older buildings can force holdouts to sell their shares in the interests of redevelopment.

If the government is willing to allow developers to force the sale of a minority owner’s private property for purposes of redevelopment, it should have no principled reason to oppose greater restrictions on the disposal of private assets for the purposes of heritage conservation.

Suggested Measures

With this in mind, the government should immediately take action on the public feedback it received during the recently concluded policy review process by widening the scope of statutory protection for heritage buildings to cover at least Grade 1 structures.

While such protection should ideally be extended to Grades 2 and 3 as well, as an interim measure, approvals of demolition or alteration of these structures should be subject to a quantifiable measure of community approval. The objective is to make destruction of assessed heritage items as difficult as possible in order to better motivate owners to embrace existing government-offered economic incentives for preservation.

Additionally, to prevent owners from evading controls on demolition or alteration, the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) – a government secretarial support office for the AAB – should establish a permanent hotline through which members of the public may report changes to the condition of graded structures. Simultaneously, all graded sites should bear signage that indicates their grading status as well as the designated hotline number.

Third, while members of the public may currently refer historic buildings to the AMO for grading assessment, the existing AAB assessment and public consultation process should be broadened and reported on through social networks, particularly Facebook. This will facilitate the reception of a wider range of community views on the value of nominated structures.

Finally, subject to exemptions for minor public works, an HIA should be required for all projects within 50 metres of a heritage site rather than just capital works projects. No HIA should be deemed complete without the inclusion of a quantifiable measure of public support for mitigation proposals. This will put the burden of responsibility on proponents to treat public engagement as more than a formality or an information exercise.

Hong Kong’s built heritage reflects the culture and history of the entire community. As such, decisions that affect the integrity of built heritage should not be left to narrow expert panels or individual owners alone.