Later this year, when Hong Kong’s government moves its headquarters to a glassy new building next to Victoria Harbour, it will leave behind the leafy hill it has called home since the 1840s. Rather than conserve the hill for public use, however, the government wants to sell half of it to developers, who plan to tear it up for a new shopping mall and 32-storey office tower.
“This hill belongs to the public and it should stay public,” says heritage activist Katty Law, who is part of a spirited coalition of groups that oppose the plan.
Over the past few months, a litany of groups have come out against the government’s plan, including the pan-democratic political parties, designers, environmental activists, architects, historians and congregants from St. John’s Cathedral, which is located on the hill.
Even feng shui masters think it’s a bad idea. One master, who is also a registered architect, told the South China Morning Post that the new office tower would block the site’s chi, which comes from the balance between Government House, at the top of the hill, and the three 1950s-era office blocks immediately below.
The government’s rationale for the redevelopment plan is straightforward: there’s a shortage of Grade A office space in Central and the new office tower would provide 28,500 square meters of it. The project is essential “to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” a spokeswoman for the Development Bureau told me.
In March, on a sunny spring morning, I met up with Katty Law in front of the government headquarter’s West Wing, which would be demolished for the new tower under the redevelopment plan.
“This is the most accessible part of Government Hill and the first point of contact most people had with the government,” said Law. She gestured towards the building’s entrance. “When it first opened, there was an public information desk right there, and if you had any business with the government, you could go there and deal with it.”
We headed up Battery Path, which leads up the hill from Queen’s Road. In the middle of the 19th century, this path ran along a bluff on the harbour’s edge. When the British landed in 1841, they took advantage of the site’s strategic location to build their first offices and a gun battery, which were later joined by all the institutions of colonial power: the governor’s home, the legislative council and St. John’s Cathedral. In the 1950s, the battery was demolished for the new government offices, which consisted of three Modernist office blocks arranged around a central courtyard.
Today, Battery Path is a leafy oasis in a denuded office district. Law worries that, if the redevelopment goes ahead, many of the trees along the path will be chopped down. “The government has pledged only to protect 11 valuable trees. And look at this,” she said, pulling a pamphlet out of her bag, on which there was a rendering of the proposed office tower. “All of this will be removed during construction. It could end up like Heritage 1881, with hundreds of old trees chopped down and the hill hollowed out.”
The government insists that its redevelopment plan will leave the hill greener than it is today, despite the fact that roads surrounding the hill will be widened. “It is our policy to ensure that no trees are unnecessarily felled or pruned,” said the Development Bureau spokeswoman. Before anything is dug up, a “detailed tree survey report” will be completed, which will be used to document all of the existing greenery. If a tree needs to be chopped down, it will be replaced, and the company that redevelops the site will be required to preserve all existing trees after the project is complete.
Nearing the top of the hill, we passed a Falun Gong protester setting up for the day. “Most people are familiar with Government Hill from seeing it on the news during protests,” said Law. We turned a corner and arrived in front of a large black gate that blocked access to the government offices beyond. A security guard eyed us suspiciously from behind the gate. “The protesters march up Battery Path and then stop right here, which is always very symbolic.”
The government’s headquarters wasn’t always closed off to the public. “After the handover, they started to fence off the government offices,” said Law. “Before, you could walk from the Botanical Gardens right down to Central. Now it’s a very elaborate process to get inside the government buildings.”
Turning around, we walk past the Former French Mission Building, which currently houses the Court of Final Appeal; the building will be preserved after the government moves, but it is not clear what it will be used for. Across the way was the well-kept grounds of St. John’s Cathedral, which is a declared monument and will also be preserved. We turned into a particularly tranquil corner of the hill and stood next to a gurgling fountain.
“This is actually private land,” said Law. We were standing in Cheung Kong Park, a section of Government Hill maintained by Hong Kong’s largest real estate developer, whose headquarters — the third-tallest building in the city when it was completed in 1999 — looms over the rest of the hill. The story of Cheung Kong’s headquarters is controversial, and Law thinks it might foreshadow what will happen to hill if the government’s redevelopment plan is successful.
“In 1995, the government made a deal with Cheung Kong to sell it part of Government Hill for their new headquarters,” she said. “Legco was only informed after the deal had taken place. That’s how Cheung Kong was able to build its headquarters here. A lot of us have a feeling that the same kind of thing has taken place with the West Wing. Why else would the government be so eager to redevelop it unless they have already promised a developer that they would?”
The government denies that it has made a deal with Cheung Kong or any other developer. “Like all others in the community, they had the opportunity to express their views during the public consultation period,” the Development Bureau spokeswoman said.
Law points out that the 1960s-era Murray Building, located across the street from St. John’s Cathedral and currently home to government offices, could be renovated to address Hong Kong’s Grade A office shortage. Instead, it will be converted into a hotel. “If they are so desperate for office space, why are they converting it into a hotel?” she asked.
I passed the question along to the Development Bureau. The spokeswoman told me that converting the Murray Building into Grade A office space would damage its heritage value. She also said that the demolition of the West Wing for a new office tower would free up an extra 6,800 square meters of public open space. “Repairing and conserving the West Wing would be a much more expensive business again and it is difficult to see that an appropriate use could be found for it,” she said.
It isn’t clear exactly why the government is pushing so hard to redevelop Government Hill when public opposition continues to mount. Even the British heritage expert hired by the government to evaluate the site warned against the kind of high-rise commercial development the government is now pursuing. In his final report, released in 2009, he recommended that entire site be preserved for public use, with the possible exception of the West Wing, which could be demolished for a public garden or new development, as long as it “respects the height and the footprint of the existing buildings.” He also advised that “any commercial development now
seems to be inappropriate.”
Opponents to redevelopment have submitted an alternative vision to the Town Planning Board, one that would preserve the West Wing and keep the whole of Government Hill open for public use. One conservation architect has even suggested that the Chief Executive relinquish control of Government House and integrate it into a new park that would stretch from Battery Path up to the Botanical Gardens.
Stopping redevelopment might sound unlikely, but Law and her allies have a good track record. In recent years, they have managed to stop the redevelopment of the former Central Police Station, Former Married Police Quarters and Central Market, all of which will now be restored and opened to the public. Her hope is now that the government’s redevelopment plans will be stalled by the Town Planning Board, which must approve any changes to the site.
Tags: Conservation, Hong Kong, Parks, Politics, Preservation, Redevelopment, Trees