Alliance For a Beautiful Hong Kong

Protect Beautiful Hong Kong

By John Batten

Heritage conservationists – supposedly – had a small victory recently when the Town Planning Board listened and substantively agreed to their arguments at the Board’s hearing on an application by Tung Wah Group Hospitals’ to build a 21-storey youth hostel next door to Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan.

I say ‘supposedly’, because more can meet the eye. Tung Wah had previously gained approval for their youth hostel at an earlier Town Planning Board application, but the statutory planning process requires that it be formalized by being included on the Sai Ying Pun & Sheung Wan Outline Zoning Plan (OZP). An OZP gives broad planning direction for a district, and any written representation or comment to any of Hong Kong’s district OZPs allows speaking in person to a hearing of the full Town Planning Board. This is an excellent and rare opportunity for the public to directly meet decision-makers to explain in greater detail an objection to the planning of a district.

However, despite the Town Planning Board being an independent statutory body, most OZP applications are government-led and argued in their favour by the Planning Department. It is rare for the Town Planning Board to overturn a recommendation by the Planning Department and not support government policies. In this case, the Tung Wah Group Hospitals’ youth hostel was to be fully funded by the Home Affairs Bureau in support of government policies to provide more affordable youth accommodation. This youth hostel was to be built on the site of an old school currently standing next to Man Mo Temple, a declared monument and possibly Hong Kong’s most important historic site.

All OZP hearings begin with the Planning Department presenting an outline of the application. In this case, the Planning Department was in favour of the application, but it gave surprisingly few supportive arguments. Tung Wah then outlined the merits of a youth hostel on this site. Then followed a group of heritage conservationists, including myself, that strongly argued against the application, outlining the historical importance of the site, its history as a place of education and arguing against a tall building being built directly next to Man Mo Temple, and – rather – it was an opportunity to restore the original one-storey proportions of the historic temple complex. We agreed that Hong Kong does need more youth hostels but this was the wrong site. Furthermore, Man Mo Temple is located in a geographically sensitive area and the recent collapse of a monument-status building in the former Central Police Station was a warning that could not be dismissed.

There was an inkling that our arguments had some weight. Town Planning Board members asked Tung Wah some tough questions: “…why had the school, currently on the site, been left idle for ten years?”; “…the Sheung Wan area is expensive; if you charge 60% of market rent, won’t that be too expensive for young people?”; “…why does the design of the new building not complement the temple?” It was vigorous and welcomed questioning from Board members, as representatives to an OZP do not have the right to ask questions once giving their own presentations.

Later that afternoon, we learned that the Town Planning Board had partially agreed with our arguments and that Tung Wah would need to reapply with a modified plan for a youth hostel. This would allow the Town Planning Board and the public to review a new application before it was approved to be built.

However, a few days later, the Audit Commission publicly released a shocking report about charity groups using their community sites to develop hotels rather, in some cases, lower-priced youth hostels. Particularly highlighted in the report was the Scout Association building in Tsim Sha Tsui. The Town Planning Board and Planning Department must have known that the Audit Commission report was about to be released. Despite the vigorous efforts of all heritage conservationists, was the current plan to build a high-rise youth hostel next to Man Mo Temple curtailed by the damning Audit Commission report? The “urgent need” for youth hostels was not so urgent if community sites could be used for community not money-making initiatives!

Ironically, at the same time, the Hong Kong Tourist Board unveiled a publicity campaign for “Old Town Central.” The Central & Western Concern Group has long advocated that Hong Kong’s old town, its layout and low-rise building character, be preserved. But, inappropriate development plans in this historic area continue: the Man Mo Temple youth hostel is only one plan. Just announced is a 25-storey hospital on the Sheng Kung Hui site overlooking Government House and there are further Urban Renewal Authority high-rise development plans for nearby Staunton Street, adding to their continuing destruction of Graham Street Market.

For heritage conservationists, any ‘victory’ is momentary; Hong Kong’s historic Central district is always under threat of more destruction – despite what the Hong Kong Tourist Board tells tourists in their latest marketing campaigns.

See Audit Commission report: www.aud.gov.hk/pdf_ca/c68ch01.pdf

Image caption:
Hong Kong Tourist Board poster placed on Mid-levels Escalator

DSC03118johnBcropJohn Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group

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