Can you fight City Hall?

The needs of the business community versus the wants of the public are at the heart of the debate over Government Hill’s future

Who can forget the moment when the iconic Star Ferry pier and clock tower were dismantled and pieces were used to feed landfill amid angry protests? Apparently government planners can.

Four years later, the government is unfortunately tweaking another sensitive public nerve. Once again it’s pushing forward with an ambitious plan to reshape the Government Hill in Central — a rare combination of government offices, an Anglican church and Chief Executive’s home — with a 32-storey office tower that will yield approximately 450,000 square feet of floor space, an underground shopping mall and car park.

Upon completion of the $5-billion Tamar development project on the city’s waterfront in Admiralty this summer, the Legislative Council is expected to move in, followed by the government headquarters by the end of the year. After that relocation, what’s left behind will be a gem inside a vacuum in the heart of Central, home to some of the steepest land rents in the world.

Despite part of the site being one of among eight projects falling under the “Conserving Central” initiative announced by the Chief Executive in last year’s policy address, Financial Secretary John Tsang, made clear the government’s stance over the controversy. In paragraph 35 of his Budget Speech earlier, he stated: “When the new Central Government Complex at Tamar comes into operation, the Main and East Wings of the Central Government Offices [in Government Hill] will be used by the Department of Justice and the West Wing will be demolished for redevelopment into Grade-A offices.”

Sharing a similar fate with the Star Ferry pier, what is at stake here — the west wing of the Central Government Offices — is regarded by government planners as being of little or no architectural value. Built more than half a century ago, it is a simple and functional structure with few remarkable features. The government-commissioned Historical and Architectural Appraisal report conducted by Purcell Miller Tritton harshly concluded: “The West Wing is the least interesting building… and if any demolition is to be considered this would be the most acceptable building to demolish.”

However, the government’s justification seems far from convincing for the public. The newly formed Government Hill Concern Group, comprising 20 political activists and green groups, including Central and Western Concern Group, the Professional Commons and Green Sense, is one of those who remain sceptical about the redevelopment plan and the integrity of the site and urges the government to rezone it as a heritage precinct for community use.

Given the short supply of commercial stock in Central, the group suspect not only a highrise office block will be built, but also half of the hill will be hollowed out to clear way for a multi-storey underground shopping complex. The deep excavation for the mall may also be a threat to the historical stone wall and valuable old trees on Battery Path. “The green hill… will effectively be a landscaped terrace similar to what can be found now on Heritage 1881 after the hollowing out of the former Tsim Sha Tsui Hill,” the concern group said in a statement. Few actually know Government Hill was the city’s first town planning initiative with public green space in the colonial era.

Strolling downhill from Hong Kong Botanical Garden and Government House, all the way from the government offices, St. John’s Cathedral, Court of Final Appeal, Battery Path leading to Queen’s Road Central and Statue Square, one can almost find an escape from the baking concrete jungle, thanks to its low-rise, well-wooded landscape. The three government offices were specially designed as low-rise in the 1950s to preserve the magnificent harbour view from the hill. “It is unique in the way it comprises government, judicial and ecclesiastical buildings all in one, very typical of English urban design,” said University of Hong Kong architecture professor Lee Ho-yin from, a specialist in architectural conservation. “Building another skyscraper is going to destroy Hong Kong’s very first continuous green public space. The consequence of pulling down one building is irreversible. It is each of these buildings that constitute the integrity and historical value of the site.”

Meanwhile, public opinion seems to favour preservation over development. A recent poll conducted by the Civic Party shows more than 60 percent of the respondents believe that preserving Government Hill overrides the need of increasing Grade-A office space supply in Central. For many, including policy makers and architects, whether building a single office tower can significantly increase office supply and how many are actually going to benefit from the project go to the heart of the quandary. “Why should the very small number of developers eyeing the sale of Government Hill not give way to the majority of Hongkongers, and insist that a historic site be privatised for the profit motive?” said Albert Lai, Vice Chairman of the Civic Party.

Lee also agrees that it is highly questionable if one single office building can significantly increase the supply of the much-needed prime offices in Hong Kong. “The issue is how many can actually benefit from this redevelopment project. Developers, a small group of high-end office users, or the general public?” he said. “There are people who could never use a grade-A office in their entire life. After all, conservation is a question of resource distribution.”