GEORGE TOWN: Initiatives to conserve Penang’s heritage properties could assume the Italian model which involves the collaboration between the private and public sectors, according to the Penang chapter of the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH).
There are more than 750 heritage sites in Italy, which is testimony to the success of the Italian model, said Marco Battistotti, the chairman of MAH Penang chapter.
He was commenting on the Penang Municipal Council’s (MPPP) directive in May to the developers of the four controversial hotel projects in inner George Town to comply with the 18-metre height or five-storey ruling for the hotels.
The hotels affected are the Eastern & Oriental Hotel’s extension project known as Annexe at Lebuh Farquahar, the Boustead Group’s RM130mil Royale Bintang Hotel, the Asian Global Business Group’s (AGB) Rice Miller Hotel in Weld Quay and the Low Yat Group’s proposed 23-storey hotel project at Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.
“The state government could use the Malayan Railway Building (now known as Wisma Kastam) clock tower, which measures about 40m, as the benchmark height for the four hotel projects.
“After all, the clock tower is a heritage landmark, as it was constructed in 1907.
“At least with a 40m height, the hotels would have a reasonable amount of commercial space viable to be developed.
“In return, the developers could refurbish the heritage buildings in the surrounding area, turning the inner city of George Town into a lively tourist site.
“There is no point in conserving a dead heritage zone,” Battistotti said.
He said George Town was the only place in Asia where there were over 4,500 heritage buildings concentrated in one area and “the state government should take advantage of its unique heritage’s positioning and breathe life into it.”
Furthermore, Penang needs at least 200 to 300 new hotel rooms a year even if its economic growth stays below 5% per annum as a result of the global recession, according to Battistotti.
The Eastern & Oriental Group obtained building plan approvals from the MPPP in 1996 for its 28-storey Annexe. However, it was scaled down to 15 storeys in 2008 when the 18m height restriction was imposed.
The Boustead and the AGB Group received endorsement from the MPPP for their projects in 2007 while the Low Yat Group’s proposed project received the go-ahead in late June 2008, less than two weeks before George Town was declared a World Heritage Site in July.
Recently in a letter to the World Heritage Committee, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng revealed that the Eastern & Oriental project and the Low Yat hotel project had been allowed to maintain their respective 15-storey and 23-storey height, as they are located in the buffer zone.
But Low Yat is required to amend the design of the overall facade so that it blends with the surrounding existing heritage buildings.
Unesco has also recently reaffirmed the status of George Town as World Heritage Site despite the initial controversy over the approval given for the four hotels.
Meanwhile, registered and chartered valuer C.A. Lim & Co proprietor Lim Chien Aun said so long as the local authorities had not officially adopted the 18m height guideline, the ruling could only serve as a state policy decision, which could be overturned by legal recourse.
In other words, the 18m height guideline had yet to be gazetted into law, Lim added.
“Buildings are governed by plot ratios and density controls, subject to infrastructural, social, and civic limitations.
“For example, the plot ratio for commercial development in Penang varies from 3.5 to 5 times, meaning that for every sq ft, the total development allowed will be 3.5 to 5 times.
“The developers submitted plans for a 3.5 times plot ratio development, but now they are told that they are getting substantially less plot ratio for development.
“Will they be compensated?
“If their projects become commercially inviable, leading to abandonment of the projects, then Penang would also lose out economically.
“The developers can seek legal recourse should they decide to defend their right to develop based on existing development policies,” he said.
Lim noted that the state government could conserve heritage properties by requiring the developers to construct and design the properties to blend with the heritage surroundings.
“Conservation need not be in the form of height control, which would render the projects inviable.
“Unless the developer has a very large tract of land in George Town where he can increase density without resorting to increasing the height of the building, then there can be only small hotels of one- to two-star categories in the inner city.
“The criteria of control should be conformity and not height control. Does it mean that a building with less than five storeys has heritage value?
“Conformity to the general surrounding is more important than height control, as it requires the developer to pay close attention to the aesthetics of the development, ensuring that the design conserves the heritage aspects, is appealing and commercially successful,” Lim said.
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