Heritage street rescued by politics
2010-03-17 EDT1 | EDT | headline | By Olga Wong and Gary Cheung
South China Morning Post

New preservation plan for Wing Lee Street ahead of key Legco vote on redevelopments

Authorities yesterday bowed to pressure from the public and conservationists and proposed saving Wing Lee Street from demolition, a day before the Legislative Council votes on a controversial redevelopment bill.

The sudden announcement of an alternative preservation plan for the street - which has gained huge attention since a film set there won an award in Berlin last month - was widely seen as a political decision.

An analyst said it was also a gesture to show the government was willing to make concessions on relatively unimportant projects after a number of controversies over heritage and development.

The Urban Renewal Authority and Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that under an alternative plan proposed to the Town Planning Board, all 12 tenement buildings in the street, in Sheung Wan, would be preserved. Originally only three would have been saved. The URA had insisted it would stick to the original plan.

The reprieve came a day before lawmakers will be asked to support an amended development bill. This would allow developers who gain 80 per cent ownership of a building over 50 years old to obtain the rest through an auction held by the Lands Tribunal. The amendment is controversial for Lam because the government has been accused of favouring developers by lowering the threshold for compulsory sales for redevelopment.

Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said the URA's decision was linked to efforts to ease opposition to the amended bill.

"The government wants to tell the public that it treasures heritage preservation by deciding to preserve the tenements in Wing Lee Street. The public interest generated by Echoes of the Rainbow also reinforced the government's determination to make a U-turn," he said. "It's obviously a public relations stunt."

But the authority's chairman, Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, said the URA had been advocating a conservation approach since 2008. He did not comment when asked if the plan was the result of a political decision, but said: "I was not under pressure."

Lam denied she had intervened in the authority's decision. "We have been working very closely and we both work for the best interests of the community," she said. "It is not a reversal. The authority just proposed another way of doing it."

Ma said the decision to preserve the tenements indicated senior officials were willing to make concessions on projects they felt were not vital to the city. The government faced determined opposition, especially by young protesters, when it decided to demolish the Star Ferry terminal in Central and, more recently, pressed ahead with a HK$66.9 billion high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.

A plan to demolish the Star Ferry bus terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui for a piazza could become a new focus of protests by the same group of young protesters, who see themselves as being shut out of public life. A top official hinted the government would not insist on demolishing the terminus if there was strong public opposition.

Activists who formed the Our Bus Terminal Group say the terminus, which dates from the 1920s, is part of the city's collective memory and have sought United Nations heritage status for it.


(上次更新: 2010-03-27)

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