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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Redeveloping and conserving Penang’s heritage

It is long overdue for Penang to come out with holistic and well thought out plans and programmes for the redevelopment and rejuvenation of George Town’s inner city.

Proactive and concerted efforts by the state government, the private sector and Penang folks should be initiated soon for a workable blueprint in order for the state to regain its glory as the “Pearl of the Orient”.

In the drawing up of a blueprint for the redevelopment, it is important that all stakeholders, especially property owners and those living, working, and operating their businesses around the inner city perimeters, be consulted and their concerns duly addressed.

Many Penangites, especially those who are illiterate or don’t have the time to read up on current issues, are still in the dark over Penang’s world heritage status and what it means to them.

George Town was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on July 7, 2008.

It will do the people good if those involved in the planning of George Town’s growth and development take the initiative to organise roadshows and public education programmes to highlight the salient points and issues to the people, and at the same time get their feedback for the blueprint.

The state government should come out with a referendum and consult all the stakeholders, business guilds, clans, associations, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are working towards conserving Penang’s heritage while ensuring it stays relevant in these modern times.

Although it is important to conserve Penang’s old world charm, rich heritage and culture in keeping with its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, there should be avenues for the new and modern side of Penang to co-exist with the old to ensure the people’s changing lifestyle and livelihood will not be jeopardised.

As a Penang girl, I am certainly proud of the state’s rich Straits Settlement cum Baba Nyonya heritage and culture that dates back to so many generations of the early settlers from China, India, Indonesia and the Arab continents, among others.

Many Penangites who are now residing in other parts of the country (me included) and overseas always have pangs of nostalgia when recalling their younger days in good old Penang.

Besides the lure of the good Penang cuisines, there are many beautiful historical buildings that were built many centuries ago that are still around in various parts of the island, including the inner city, today.

But there are also many pre-war buildings that are left in very dilapidated conditions after their tenants left those buildings when rentals soared after the repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000.

Many of these buildings have become hazardous and are unfit for occupancy after their owners failed to upkeep and maintain them.

The introduction of clear and transparent guidelines on what can and cannot be done in the redevelopment of these ageing buildings will revitalise and bring back life to the inner city.

Penang can take a leaf from many cities around the world including London, Sydney and Singapore that have successfully rejuvenated and redeveloped old parts of their cities while maintaining the rich heritage and history for the present and future generations to enjoy.

While many of the historical buildings should be conserved in their current original form such as the restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Khoo Kongsi buildings, those that are too dilapidated should be redeveloped.

Retaining the original facades of these old buildings while allowing new extension annexes within the permissible heights to be built is one practical way of adding value to these buildings.

Buildings that are too old to be restored should make way for new ones that incorporate the elements of Penang’s “old world charm” in the building’s architecture and facade and are within the permissible heights to blend in with the whole environment.

Making known these practical solutions and guidelines that allow room for value adding and reasonable return on investment will encourage the private sector to partake in the inner city’s rejuvenation and inject a new glow and versatility into George Town.

Currently, some interested parties, including NGOs, are taking a very ad-hoc view of how to go about restoring buildings without looking at the big picture of rejuvenating George Town’s inner city.

Instead of opposing every proposed plans, they should offer value added and constructive ideas that are practical and workable.

It is heartening to note that even Unesco has expressed its empathy for Penang folks and has directed its two representatives, David Logan and Giovanni Boccardi, to appraise the situation on how the 18m height restriction for the four hotel projects approved for George Town’s inner city will affect the stakeholders and the people’s livelihood.

Boccardi, who is Paris-based World Heritage Centre chief of unit for East Asia and the Pacific, and Logan, International Council on Monuments and Sites member, were in Penang from April 26 to 30 to meet representatives of the developers of the hotel projects in the Unesco-listed heritage zone.

Their findings are set to be deliberated at the upcoming Unesco World Heritage Committee meeting in Seville, Spain, from June 22 to 30.

The four developers – Asian Global Business Group, Boustead Group, the Low Yat Group and Eastern & Oriental Group have been granted approvals from the Penang Island Municipal Council to build hotels in the heritage zone before it was placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.

With so much at stake, Unesco’s impending decision will put to rest the anxiety of these developers and hopefully, it will be a well thought out and win-win one for all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, instead of directing the four developers to confine the height of their hotels to 18m or five-storeys, the state government should also wait out for the final Unesco decision on the projects.

After all, commercial projects that are viable will generate huge spin-offs to Penang’s economy and create employment for its people.

·Deputy news editor Angie Ng believes that for George Town to thrive as a vibrant heritage city, it is imperative that quality commercial developments that are within the guidelines of its world heritage status and that add value to the city, be encouraged.

By The Star (by Angie Ng)

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