Why Government Hill needs to be conserved

Why Government Hill needs to be conserved

The Hong Kong government wants to sell its historic and verdant grounds to developers, but heritage activists say the land belongs to the public

hong kong government hillHong Kong's Government Hill is bound by Upper Albert Road, Garden Road, Queen's Road Central and Glenealy.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 would turn the area into a new shopping mall and 32-story office tower.

“This hill belongs to the public and it should stay public,” says heritage activist Katty Law, who is part of a 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.

Even feng shui masters think selling the land is 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 a new office tower on the grounds would provide 28,500 square meters of new space.

The project is essential “to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” said a spokeswoman for the Development Bureau.

Opponents aren’t buying it -- and they’re offering free walking tours of Government Hill to show the public exactly what will be lost.

hong kong government hillHeritage activist Katty Law.

hong kong government hillGovernment offices West Wing.

Green oasis

When the British landed in 1841, they chose the location to be known as Battery Path to build their first offices and a gun battery, according to activist Katty Law. Many of the institutions of colonial power were soon built near the site: the governor’s home, legislative council and St. John’s Cathedral.

In the 1950s, the battery was demolished for 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," she says, holding up a pamphlet with a rendering of a proposed office tower.

“All of this will be removed during construction,” she says. “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 cut down, it will be replaced. Whatever company develops the site will be required to preserve all existing trees after the project is complete, according to the spokeswoman.

hong kong government hillGovernment Hill's Battery Path once led uphill from Victoria Harbour. Now it is an oasis in Central's concrete jungle.

hong kong government hillGovernment Hill was opened to the public until 1997, when security fences were erected around all government offices. Access is now restricted and visitors must register to enter.

Government land, not public land

“Most people are familiar with Government Hill from seeing it on the news during protests,” says Law. “The protesters march up Battery Path and then stop, which is always very symbolic.”

The government’s headquarters weren’t always closed off to the public.

“After the handover, they started to fence off the government offices,” says 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.”

hong kong government hillBattery Path is a popular spot for protesters, including the ever-present Falun Gong. Protest marchers often make their ways up the path from Queen's Road en route to the government offices.

hong kong government hill

The former French Mission Building, which currently houses the Court of Final Appeal, will be preserved after the government moves, but it is not clear what it will be used for. Across the way, St. John’s Cathedral, a declared monument, will also be preserved. 

Nearby is Cheung Kong Park, a privately owned 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 the 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 says. “Legco was only informed after the deal had taken place.

"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?”

hong kong government hillOne of the pillars of colonial power in Hong Kong, St. John's Cathedral opened in 1849. It is the oldest Anglican church in Asia.

hong kong government hillHeadquarters of Hong Kong's largest property developer, Cheung Kong Centre towers over Government Hill.

hong kong government hillOne of the most tranquil spots on Government Hill is the privately owned Cheung Kong Garden.

An alternate vision

The Hong Kong government says it has made no 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 Murray Building, located across the street from St. John’s Cathedral and current 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 (the government) is so desperate for office space, why are they converting it into a hotel?” she asks.

In response, the Development Bureau spokeswoman said 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.

A 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 the 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.”

hong kong government hillBritish Private Ronald Douglas Maxwell was a volunteer solider killed while defending Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion in 1941. Though he died in Wan Chai, his fellow soldiers buried him next to St. John's Cathedral.

hong kong government hillBuilt in 1969, the Murray Building is one of Hong Kong's first skyscrapers and a Modernist landmark. It will be converted into a 300-room hotel after the government moves its offices.

Opponents to redevelopment have submitted an alternative plan 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 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. 

Read more about Hong Kong's Government Hill at Our Government Hill.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf