Restoration a Better Option

It was recently reported that the architect responsible for renovating Cuba’s old Havana city had been awarded the 2007 UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor. The work of Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, the world-renowned historic renovation specialist, was acclaimed as the result of “many years of charismatic leadership and painstaking dedication to the restoration and conservation of the Historical Centre of Havana".

Not only has Leal’s innovative plan restored some of the oldest, yet most gorgeous buildings in the Americas, it has also funded social programs and housing reconstruction, making it a model for other historic districts around the world. The self-financing, self-sustaining model is viewed as an integrated vision of restoration and providing services to the public, according to a United Nations culture official based in Havana.

Indeed, “an integrated vision of restoration and providing services to the public” may well be what Hong Kong needs in rethinking its overall urban renewal strategy and devising an effective heritage conservation strategy. The Urban Renewal Authority’s current “demolish and rebuild” model is far too commercially biased for society’s long-term good. Instead of “providing services to the public”, the statutory body’s actions almost verge on callousness in forcibly gentrifying old districts. Besides, how can it be expected to preserve heritage when it is bent on demolishing and rebuilding?

A unique part of Leal’s urban development strategy is to restore old hotels, restaurants and buildings to attract tourists, and then using the tourism revenues to fund other restorations, along with social programs and housing renovation.

Underlying such a strategy is of course a genuine desire to improve citizens’ living environment and at the same time avoid what may be a traumatic uprooting experience for residents, especially senior ones, of the run-down districts. Admittedly such a restoration process would be slower-paced than tearing down and rebuilding. But it is nonetheless a more sustainable and humane way of handling urban renewal.

Complicating things further for Hong Kong’s urban renewal is on the one hand the URA’s prerogative to make enough profit from the projects to sustain itself and on the other its obligation to come up with PROFITABLE projects to entice potential joint venture partners (i.e. to-be-chosen developers). As long as this profit element looms large in its financial objective, it cannot but give short shrift to its primary objectives: those of improving residents’ living environment and preservation of historic heritage.

Given the Central Police Station compound and URA’s Graham Street project are both located in the same district, an idea that springs to mind is to coalesce the two sites in terms of planning. Applying the Havana model, step one would be to restore and preserve all the existing historic buildings in the compound (without fancy and obtrusive new construction) to generate tourism revenue, and step two to fund restoration of the Graham Street old buildings with that revenue. This would serve both the purposes of heritage preservation at both sites and avoiding uprooting the Graham Street residents and tenants, not to mention it is also an economical and environment-friendly solution.

Jockey Club’s HK$1.8 billion rejuvenation plan for the Central Police Station compound has all the attributes of a pompous opera. But one of the main concerns would be that the residents in the vicinity of the site might not like the idea at all, as it would mean their right to enjoy the peace and quiet of their living environment would be imposed upon. Glaring lights from the reflective glass and beaming columns would be enough of a nuisance at night for nearby residents.

One might also query the prudence of creating another culture hub when there is already a plan in place to build a humongous cultural district in West Kowloon. As much as the funding comes from a charity, the plan still would seem an extravagant waste of resources – resources that could be put to much better use (e.g. alleviating poverty). A more pragmatic and scaled-down plan (meaning less spending) focused on restoring and renovating the 17 existing historic buildings with no additional construction might make much more sense and might well be the preferred option.

While the Havana experience shows there may be a better option than the present “demolish-and-rebuild” model indiscriminately used in all urban renewal projects in Hong Kong, it is anyone’s guess if the administration will ever be willing to start reflecting on the flaws of its urban renewal strategy, which benefits developers more than it does citizens.