KUALA Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has the power to stop the redevelopment plans of the century-old Vivekananda Ashram in Brickfields, said an expert on planning and local government laws.
Lawyer Derek Fernandez said it was within the power of DBKL to reclassify the land as Category 1 heritage if it felt it was of public interest.
“If the building on the land is more than 100 years old and meets the criteria of the Heritage Commission, it can be classified as such. DBKL can apply for the classification or even rezone it,’’ added Fernandez.
Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM) executive director Elizabeth Cardosa said in the original Draft KL 2020 Local Plan, the building was identified as a Category 2 heritage building, which meant it was identified as significant from a historical and/or architectural importance.
“While the land owner or trustees can make representations, City Hall has full power to override them as the KL city plan is still a draft and has not been gazetted as final; hence DBKL can still, subject to public hearings, change the classification from Category 2 to Category 1,’’ explained Fernandez.
Fernandez stressed that it is vital that all historic buildings more than 100 years old be preserved in its entirety, adding that commercial profits must not be allowed to override national and cultural identity.
“In any event, the land was given for an ashram and if the Indian community feels that it is part of their identity, then DBKL can step in for the sake of public interest,’’ he said.
Fernandez added that even if it was a category 2 classification, and if development was allowed around the building, such development must be consistent visually with the building and aesthetically blend with it.
“A modern high-rise tower is totally inconsistent with a 100-year-old ashram and will visually pollute and erode the facade and its identity,’’ he said.
Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) heritage conservation committee member and architect Mariana Isa, who agreed with Fernandez, said DBKL should stop taking the “backward” approach when it came to heritage conservation.
“They tend to allow approvals for high-rise towers but justify it by saying that the old building will be retained or that the façade will not be touched.
“How can a modern structure like what is being proposed by the developer on the Vivekananda land be in harmony with the old building?” Mariana asked.
“Truth be told, if DBKL continues to allow modern structures to come up like this, it will destroy the spirit of the city’s other older structures in and around the city, and Kuala Lumpur can never stand out as a historical city,” she added.
Mariana explained that it took 10 years of paperwork for Penang and Malacca to be accorded world heritage status by Unesco.
“Yet, it was not just one building but a series of buildings steeped in culture, heritage and history and old world charm that was in harmony with the natural surroundings of the township,’’ she said.
What is being planned for Vivekananda ashram is going against all of that, she said, warning that if the project was allowed, it would set a dangerous precedent for developers to do the same to other buildings of similar heritage value like Vivekananda ashram.
Both Fernandez and Mariana were responding to Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s statement that the government was unable to stop private development.
Tengku Adnan was quoted in an online portal saying that since Vivekananda ashram was on private land, there was very little they could do but advised the developer and trustees to retain the building.
Kuala Lumpur mayor Datuk Seri Ahmad Phesal Talib also said the land the ashram stood could be developed, but its heritage elements must be maintained either by keeping its façade, or incorporating it into the proposed development.
He, however, urged residents to put forward their objections by Nov 11.
On Oct 16, StarMetro reported that the iconic Vivekananda ashram would be redeveloped with a 23-storey residential tower with 260 units and eight storey parking bay built above it.
Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) chairman P. Waytha Moorthy, in a statement, said it was a known fact that the National Heritage Department had gazetted the Vivekananda Ashram in 2008 and 2009, therefore the validity of the site and its surroundings was not in question.
He urged Tengku Adnan to invoke his powers to take an exception based on Section 3 of the FT (Planning) Act 1982, and Section 18(1) which specifically empowered him to suspend the development plan.
“The argument by the FT Minister and the mayor that the trustees can maintain the site as heritage while incorporating the development plans is utter rubbish.
“It does not take a rocket scientist to say the planned development by the board of trustees would cause permanent destruction to the heritage building,” he said, adding that it made a mockery of Malaysia being a member of the World Heritage Committee.