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Renovation of Historical Complex Renews Hong Kong Preservation Debate

The Hong Kong government faces new challenges to plans to preserve one of the territory's few remaining historical sites. As Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong, the challenges are part of a long dispute over the destruction of dozens of landmarks in recent years.

It was just a few years after Britain took over Hong Kong in 1842 that the territory's first British police station was built. The station, and the adjacent prison and court building closed in 2004.

The 160-year-old complex fills about a city block in the center of a popular business and entertainment district. Nearby, residents frequent posh bars, art galleries and high-end restaurants.

John Batten is an art gallery owner who helped organize a group dedicated to preserving Hong Kong's historical structures.

"When you go to the prison and you walk around, you are struck by the absolute tranquility and beauty of the buildings, " Batten says. "And of course horrible things happened there. It was a working prison for 140 years, 150 years."

The structure is one of the last reminders of Hong Kong's colonial past in the heart of the city. But an ambitious plan to renovate the station has angered some residents, who say Hong Kong is changing too much of its history.

The $231 million plan will leave the outer walls of the complex, and put galleries, boutiques and restaurants within the shells of the old buildings. In addition, a 50-story glass tower will jut out from inside the complex, with a distinctive set of giant spikes that opponents say will hide views of the territory's mountains and detract from the old buildings beauty.

In past years Hong Kong's government has destroyed several landmarks to make way for roads and other projects. Last year the Hong Kong government demolished the famed Star Ferry terminal and Queen's Pier, where British royalty used to step onto the territory, in favor of a harbor development plan. Fierce protests broke out over both cases.

Christine Loh is the founder of Civic Exchange, an independent public-policy research group. She says finding a happy medium between preserving Hong Kong's past and making money is not always the easiest task.

"On the one hand people are worried that commercialization means that this place will be turned into something that nobody recognizes… there's another issue of how do you maintain the cost of maintaining a heritage site?" she notes.

The new plan to renovate the police station has become a test for the city's ability to reconcile historical and financial concerns.

But for people like Batten, even this plan is a slap in the face for preservation activists.

He says over the past few decades Hong Kong has seen itself turn into a city that is no longer recognizable.

"There has been concern," Batten says. "The difference is between 1985 and 2005 and 2006 and '07 is we don't have much heritage left. And it's a realization by government finally that if everything goes then there is nothing left."

Batten says that putting galleries and restaurants inside the old police building and creating yet another high rise will not showcase the uniqueness of the building. While Batten did not offer any concrete alternatives to the plan, he said any renovation projects for the Central Station and other historical structures should maintain and make use of existing structures as they are.

One charitable foundation a few years ago offered to fund a $64 million plan to convert the old complex into art studios, classrooms and museums that could be used by local and visiting artists and students. The government rejected that plan.

Batten does acknowledge that the government has begun to realize that the public values Hong Kong's history and its older buildings. In recent months, government planners have turned down a number of high-rise developments in older districts.

But he says another problem that infuriates many residents is the lack of communication between the government and public over the demolition of historical structures. Many preservation activists say the public often is not consulted on new projects.

Activists say if the government continues to choose development over preservation, they are going to lose more than just old structures. Within the walls of many of Hong Kong's old buildings, the stories that make up the territory's identity were created. And for Batten and many others, tearing those buildings down makes it all the harder to recall the city's origins.