Offer ideas to private owners of heritage buildings: Penang heritage commissioner

Offer ideas to private owners of heritage buildings: Penang heritage commissioner

No use merely highlighting impending demolition without giving alternatives

GEORGE TOWN – Heritage activists can do more than point out the tearing down of old buildings, and offer input to the local authorities on what can be done in situations when private owners are the ones initiating the demolition.

Penang Heritage Commissioner Rosli Nor said the private owners of heritage buildings as well as developers have cited cost factors as reasons why it is better to demolish and rebuild, rather than repair and conserve the old structures.

“The prices for construction materials and expertise are not going to fall. We must accept the fact that it will be pricier to develop in the future than now,” Rosli told The Vibes in an interview.

This is where groups like the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) can play a bigger role other than pointing out the demolition of old buildings, he added.

They can offer suggestions on alternative uses of the buildings or on how aspects of it can be preserved and incorporated into other use, and how costs can be mitigated.

Rosli said the PHT was established decades ago and would have the experience to advise private owners on the economics of conservation.

“For example, old high-rise buildings can be built within the enclave of the Rex Cinema rather than demolishing it outright,” he suggested.

“The original structure can become an annexe block, foyer or lobby to the main new building.”

He believes the Rex Cinema, which is currently occupied by the main tenant Mekio Furnishings Sdn Bhd, can be saved with coordination and consultation between stakeholders.

Rosli was asked to comment on recent claims by heritage activists that the Rex Cinema on Kinta Lane here would be the next heritage building to be demolished.

The 84-year-old theatre, famous for its Art Deco architectural style, was highlighted on social media over Chinese New Year by activists who said it would make way for yet another luxury condominium project. Activists also claimed that the demolition has been approved by the Penang Island City Council.

Existing laws protect government heritage properties

Rosli explained that the state heritage enactment is legislated to mostly protect government heritage properties and those with national historical significance, but it cannot protect all old buildings.

PHT and the city council must work together to come up with a comprehensive incentive package to protect all private old buildings, he added.

“Penang is an old municipality with a history dating back to the 1800s. There are thousands of appeals to preserve various buildings. We must find a win-win status – the government wins some and the owners too.”

There is a need for incentives to prevent private owners from demolishing their properties, he stressed.

The city council can be convinced to offer incentives so that old and heritage-type property can be maintained in the face of dwindling property prices due to the economic slowdown, Rosli suggested.

The Penang heritage commissioner has explained that not all old building can be protected as the state heritage enactment is legislated to mostly protect government heritage properties and those with national historical significance. – ALIF OMAR/The Vibes pic, January 27, 2023

But there must be a starting point with the city council taking the lead, he said, adding that his commissioner’s office is willing to pursue a public-private initiative to conserve the Rex property.

The last year has seen the destruction of heritage sites with the council’s approval, such as the demolition of a 138-year-old grave belonging to Foo Teng Nyong who was the third wife of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee.

In early January, a pre-war bungalow on Jalan Clove Hall was also demolished.

Structures like the Rex theatre, Foo’s tomb and the Jalan Clove Hall bungalow lie outside the core zone of the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site, and activists like PHT vice-chairman Khoo Salma Nasution and Mark Lay have been trying to raise awareness about the need for a tertiary protection zone for these buildings.

Rosli said the matter should best be referred to city council president Datuk Yew Tung Seang and the council’s architects.

Yew and the officials could not be reached for comment while efforts are underway to contact state executive councillor Jagdeep Singh Deo, who oversees the local government portfolio.

Penang’s Rex Cinema was designed by Charles Geoffrey Boutcher (1884–1964), a London-born architect and a partner of the architectural firm Stark & McNeill in Malaya. His other recognisable projects include the Kedah House in Penang and the Zahir Mosque in Alor Star.

source – The Vibes

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