Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Decrepit Heritage - Law and Policy crumbling property rights

It was a welcome move to allow redevelopment at Mid-Levels 6 and 8 Kennedy Road, and not employ
the devious declaration of temporary monument status. The last time the AMO got it right is when
Bruce Lee’s former residence-turned-love-hotel was denied monument status because the building had
been altered for decades. The AMO rightly had to disappoint fans given the baseless heritage claims.

However, most of the heritage policy lacks coordination at all levels, and the Government’s approach
usually mimics the bad guys in Lee’s movies, who take what they want, when they want it, forcing
somebody’s hand.

Ho Tung villa was deemed heritage, but its historical allure was debunked as urban legend. The most
embarrassing and egregious case involved Jessville mansion, declared a proposed monument, and
less than a year later downgraded to a Grade 3 historical building after owners agreed to maintain the
building as a clubhouse.

This lack of accountability calls into question all halted redevelopments since Kin Yin Lei mansion.
When the AMO flip flops in less than a year on a graded monument to the lowest of heritage ratings,
legitimate doubts arise concerning heritage and if efforts to stop redevelopment are justified. Do
“heritage” buildings like King Yin Lei or Ho Tung Villa deserve the name?

King Yin Lei was graded within the same day its monument status was declared, which doesn’t speak
well of the grading process. Tthe declaration of monument status to halt redevelopment projects skews
a grading process which is already partial, and undermines AMOs credibility.

Secretary for Development Carrie Cheung’s description of the heritage policy as take “no action if
the enemy makes no move” diverts responsibility. Recall King Yin Lei, where twenty per cent of its
facade was ruined. Conservationists and media pointed fingers at the owner, but they had the right to
redevelop. It was AMOs responsibility to protect heritage, but the AMO had not even graded King Yin
Lei, indicating it held no heritage value.

The AMO didn’t need to wait for protests before offering King Yin Lei’s owner the land exchange. Had it
established a set of fair and clear guidelines, AMO wouldn’t have cost heritage the loss of the buildings
distinctive original features.

These desperate last minute attempts in crisis management are often cheered, but could cost Hong
Kong the early demoltion of possible heritage buildings that aren’t on a watch list. These “just in the nick
of time” actions always surprise owners with heritage demands, and create both real and opportunity
costs. The Ho Tung redevelopment, for example, was estimated at $3 bn. The AMO has said purchasing
heritage sites would be a "last resort", and therefore it is unfair to force owners to foot the entirety of
the heritage bill, exemplified by Jessville mansion’s clubhouse.

Privately owned heritage-worthy sites have been in the same state for decades, thus there is no well-
founded reason why, after years of government assessment that those sites which have not been
declared monuments should suddenly be protected as such. With seventy percent of identified heritage
buildings privately owned, and more ungraded and unnoticed - a number conservationists put in the
thousands, the need for overhaul is pressing.

If Hong Kong is increasingly deprived of historic landmarks, it won’t be to the fault of property owners, it
will be the AMOs. The AMO has repeatedly admitted problems with its policy but no changes have been
made, leaving the principal strategy to continue evading justifiable grading and infringing upon property
rights. If the public wants to keep its heritage, it needs to demand the heritage policy is renovated.

For starters, the AMO needs to stop using the monument status as a bargaining tool to stop
redevelopment, and should further clarify rules in its grading system. Economic incentives go a long way
in preserving heritage, but haven’t been fully utilized in Hong Kong.

The AMO doesn’t have pockets deep enough to buy every heritage property, and owners shouldn’t be
in a position where the older their building is, the less control they have over it. Public interest in the
use of heritage should be defended, but so too must the property rights of owners. Treating heritage
buildings as they were part of a knick knack collection should be discouraged as they often ignore
property rights – here, heritage itself needs defending, as not every beautiful or decades-old building
qualifies.

Middle ground can be found in jurisdictions that have balanced these interests with economic incentives
at play. Hong Kong’s heritage policy needs to ensure it doesn't employ a strategy which is dreamt
up out of thin air to control what someone does with their property, but has a real focus on maintaining
and promoting heritage.

One of the problems that exists is with the legislation directing AMO itself, along with a number of other offices that don't seem to have a clue how to coordinate with each other. But as long as the public allows AMO to remain as is, the heritage policy and the laws that guide it remain in a state of decay.

For more on this, visit Hong Kong: Sidestepping Property Rights in Preservation

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