HONG KONG - AN AMBITIOUS plan to convert one of the few remaining colonial buildings in skyscraper-dominated Hong Kong has rekindled a fierce debate about how the former colony deals with its heritage.
In the past year, fierce protests over the removal of the city's Star Ferry terminal and the destruction of Queen's Pier, where Britain's royalty used to step onto the territory, has altered the city's laissez-faire attitude to development, activists say.
Now, a HK$1.8 billion (S$318 million) plan to convert the old police station, jail and magistrates court into a gleaming commercial, arts and public space has become a testing ground for the city's ability to reconcile historical and profit concerns.
The scheme, with a distinctive set of giant spikes in a prime residential and commercial area, has divided opinion.
'The proposal of building a 50-storey glass tower inside the complex is unbelievable. And to me, it definitely will dominate the whole heritage site and actually won't do any good to it,' said Ms Katty Law, an activist.
Mr William Yiu, executive director of charities at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, whose gambling monolopoly has allowed it to become both the city's biggest taxpayer and philanthropic giver, said their scheme is an attempt to do something new.
'We want this to set an example of conservation,' said Mr Yiu, who is running the scheme that sits on one of the few remains of the British colonial era to survive in the city's Central district dominated by gleaming office blocks.
'The idea is that we can do a new building at an historical site with facilities that we very much need in Hong Kong.'
The site was chosen by the British navy as the centre for law and order when it took over the island, then little more than an obscure rock, in 1841, and it flourished as the city expanded.
New design The new design - by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who are behind the Birds Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing and the conversion of the Tate Modern in London - will put galleries, boutiques and restaurants within the shells of the existing listed buildings.
It will then create a new structure behind the buildings that will include a theatre, a cinema and two elevated public gardens, bordered by the collection of spikes which will have plants growing around them.
The spikes, inspired by the distinctive pattern of the bamboo scaffolding seen across the city, have drawn ire from residents nearby and also concern that it will upset the city's feng shui, or energy system, which is rumoured to have been a factor in several other major building designs in Hong Kong.
Mr Yiu said he is not expecting a repeat of the protests at Queen's Pier last summer, when conservationists tied themselves to the structure to try and stop its removal, as the buildings will be left in place.
He said the Jockey Club has been involved in a lengthy public consultation, despite being given pre-approval by Chief Executive Donald Tsang in his annual policy speech last year and that parts of the design, including the spikes, were being reconsidered as a result.
Public pressure Campaigners say that public pressure in recent years has transformed the government's attitude to conservation, where commercial considerations have steamrollered any concerns in the past.
'I think the government is now realising that there are opportunities and that it is nice to have some diversity,' said Mr Paul Zimmerman, founding member of pressure group Designing Hong Kong.
'(They see) it is wrong to have just a monotony of podium-style buildings with no street level interface and just big towers on top. I think that they're recognising that that is not necessarily good for building a community.'
Mr John Batten, whose campaigns have enjoyed success in stopping several developments - including on the site of the former residential quarters for married police officers where Mr Tsang grew up - said the change in attitude among authorities has been marked.
'Government has changed dramatically. They are now pointing the finger at the property developers. Before they would not have looked for the faults,' he said.
Mr Batten said the change has come about because of a series of strong targeted campaigns, ranging from the Queen's Pier demonstration to efforts to stop the destruction of traditional wet markets.
'I think these cases come down to a very grassroots approach. It is built on community support for the ideas,' he said.
However Mr Batten is frustrated at the way the new Jockey Club scheme was presented as a fait accompli before consultation.
'The way they have approached it is muddly and murky. They came up with a bright and breezy plan and they thought everyone would think it was great, but it is not very practical,' he said. -- AFP