Across the road from The Foreign Correspondent’s Club is the Bishop’s House, a heritage landmark with a distinctive octagonal tower, writes John Batten.
Dating from 1843, it is one of Hong Kong’s oldest colonial buildings and housed the original St Paul’s College. Despite its bona
fide heritage credentials, it has only been accorded a Grade 1 heritage grading by the Antiquities Advisory Board, rather than the higher ‘Monument’ status – a heritage grading ensuring its full preservation and protection from demolition.
A long land lease for this site was granted to the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (SKH or Anglican Church) in the first year of British rule in Hong Kong. This lease allows the SKH to operate a theological college, a school, St Paul’s Church, a hospital and provide staff accommodation.
For over 160 years, Bishop Hill has been home and office of the Bishop of Hong Kong, the most senior Anglican cleric in the city. The Bishop’s home is sited mid-distance between the former Government House, now-Chief Executive’s House, and St John’s Cathedral.
It occupied a traditionally strategic and symbolically important position in the colonial pecking order: Government Hill with its (former) Central Government Offices and government decision-makers were just across the road.
In addition to the Bishop’s House, there are three other graded heritage buildings on the site and a beautiful grassy open space runs up the hillside parallel with Glenealy. In Hong Kong, with the exception of the just-renovated and opened Tai Kwun/Central Police Station, Bishop Hill has the highest concentration of graded heritage buildings in one dedicated area.
Following the controversial demolition of the ‘Star’ Ferry building in Central in 2006 and the success of the Central & Western Concern Group’s advocacy to preserve the modernist PMQ buildings, the government was pressed to formulate a heritage policy for the city’s Central district.
In 2009 the Development Bureau announced its Conserving Central policy of “eight initiatives to preserve many of the important cultural, historical and architectural features in Central while adding new life and vibrancy to the area”. The SKH site was one of those initiatives.
In 2011 it was announced that Bishop Hill would include a redeveloped 18-storey community centre (on the site of the former Central Hospital) and relocation of the church’s theological college and kindergarten, now operating inside St Paul’s Church, to a property owned by the SKH on Mt Butler.
However, this plan was stymied by strong opposition from the well-heeled residents of Mt Butler. They argued, among other considerations, that there would be greater traffic congestion if the kindergarten were relocated.
In 2017, documents were tabled to the Central & Western District Council outlining a new initiative for the site by the SKH. A few months later, illustrated plans for a 25-storey “non-profit-making private hospital” were unveiled with the new hospital closely wedged between the site’s historic buildings and covering the site’s grassed areas.
This huge building would straddle the entire Bishop Hill, running uphill between Lower Albert and Upper Albert Roads. The SKH’s proposal includes car parking facilities and a new run-in/run-out entrance on Lower Albert Road, with little consideration for pedestrians and current traffic congestion. This plan was presented with no prior discussion with the public.
The proposed hospital is out of proportion to the site’s other low-rise heritage buildings and adjacent heritage buildings, including the Chief Executive’s House and the FCC. This development will have a detrimental visual impact on a unique heritage corridor that begins at the low-rise FCC building and ends at St John’s Cathedral and the former Court of Final Appeal – both heritage buildings accorded Monument status.
Heritage and conservancy groups have again come together to object to the SKH’s Bishop Hill redevelopment. Under the umbrella of the Government Hill Concern Group, which previously successfully campaigned for the retention of the West Wing of the former Central Government Offices when it was threatened with demolition, a pre-emptive planning application has been filed with the Town Planning Board.
The application has a simple proposal: that any redeveloped hospital be of the current hospital’s 6-storey height and footprint and that the entire Bishop Hill site and its four heritage buildings are preserved and treated with respect within a new statutory heritage zoning encompassing a heritage corridor that also includes the former Central Government Offices and St John’s Cathedral. Determined public support for this proposal will ensure that ‘Conserving Central’ lives up to its promise! n
UPDATE 27/9/2019: Town planning in Hong Kong can take ages to complete and the process can be complex. The proposed redevelopment by the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican Church) of the former Central Hospital next to the Bishop House and across from the FCC is currently going through another stage of its planning. I have previously outlined in the FCC’s The Correspondent* magazine the historic importance of the entire Bishop Hill site with its four heritage buildings, trees and greenery. Below is an update on efforts to protect it from overdevelopment.
The Government Hill Concern Group (GHCC) is a group of heritage advocates who came together to campaign against the demolition of the West Wing, one of the three wings of the former Central Government Offices (CGO), sitting on Lower Albert Road adjacent to the Bishop House, Government House and the FCC. Demolishing the West Wing would have destroyed the modernist architectural integrity of this historic site, the city’s original seat of government administration from the first days of British colonial rule in Hong Kong.
After a concerted campaign, culminating in a meeting with then-Development, now Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, the West Wing was saved. Its renovation for the Department of Justice is nearing completion and it will soon reopen. You may recall that the West Wing previously had an elevator that gave public access from Queen’s Road Central up to Lower Albert Road. Once the West Wing reopens, this lift access should again be available to give the public an alternative, non-hill route to the Bishop Hill area.
The integrity of the former government hill site is now assured and the GHCC has regrouped to campaign for the adjacent Bishop Hill site to be similarly and appropriately conserved. A planning application was made last year requesting the Town Planning Board properly plan the site rather than immediately allow the Anglican Church to redevelop it without additional public consultation. The Town Planning Board agreed with the concern group, and an Outline Zoning Plan (OZP) has been prepared by the Planning Department and was recently open for public scrutiny. In this OZP – which outlines broad-brush statutory planning details for all areas of Hong Kong – a height restriction of 135 metres (about 25 storeys) has been recommended for Bishop Hill by the Planning Department.
The GHCC argues this height is too high and any new development of consequent scale and bulk would overwhelm this sensitive heritage site. The group has now submitted a considered counter proposal in a submission to the Town Planning Board. The GHCC argues that the entire site should have a height restriction of no higher than 80 metres (about 20 metres higher than the former Central Hospital’s current height), and that any new development only be allowed to be built on the footprint of the current buildings. This proposal will still allow the Anglican Church to develop, or renovate, the former Central Hospital, but will not overwhelm the site’s heritage and greenery. This restricted height will also contain the bulk and form of any new building, alleviate traffic congestion, and retain the unique historic ambience of the entire Bishop Hill.
The GHCC will make oral submissions to the Town Planning Board at a hearing to discuss the OZP in the next months. Anyone else who makes a comment on this application can also address the Town Planning Board – which makes a decision after hearing all submissions. Please make a comment – forms are here and here.