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Chp 104, Former Explosives Magazine – Forty years champion for the environment

Former Explosives Magazine

A minor furore was sparked off in 2002 by an application by the US-based Asia Society to develop the former Explosives Magazine at Admiralty into its new regional headquarters.

As last remaining site of the Victoria Barracks, the Explosives Magazine had very significant historical and heritage value. The 1-hectare site housed old military buildings built in the 1840s and 1860s for storage of explosives, with a Grade I historical building status conferred by the Antiquities Advisory Board. It also consisted of the GG Block, a masonry building of the 1930s and used as an outpost station of the military cargo and explosive depot. A small rail track used for transporting explosives still remained on the site. The area was surrounded by woodland which was home to a few species of protected bats.

The Asia Society’s plan was to make use of the historical buildings, which would provide a total floor space of 1,800 square meters. But in addition, a new building would be added to give another 1,300 square meters. It was this new addition which CA objected to, which was felt to be incompatible and out of character of the existing buildings. Despite the reportedly smaller area, the new building would have a bulk twice as large as all four heritage buildings put together, due to the inclusion of other floor areas not accounted for as well as the exceptionally high floor-to-ceiling height. Such a development, reportedly to cost $200 million, was considered excessive and unnecessary.

To give proper protection to the ecological and heritage value of the site, CA submitted a request to the Town Planning Board to have the area zoned from Government/Institutions and Community, Road, Open Space and Green Belt to “Other Specified Uses (Nature and Heritage Centre)” or Green Belt. The Town Planning Board met on 28 June 2002 agreeing in principle that the site should be primarily for conservation but, in a strange twist, decided to wait for Asia Society’s proposal before making a decision. The deferral, questioned by the CA, was reportedly strongly advocated by the Home Affairs Bureau, the bureau charged with preserving heritage. But stranger things occurred with the surfacing of conspiracy theories in the press alleging that the new structures by Asia Society might hamper with a military cable which could have national security implications – a distraction which, though mildly amusing, did little to help CA’s cause. Throughout CA had taken care to emphasise that it did not object to revitalization of the site through cultural and community use, but would oppose excessive and incompatible development.

Even stranger was the outcome on 11 October 2002 when the Town Planning Board decided to approve both CA’s rezoning request and Asia Society’s application. For the Board, the new zoning would be called Other Specified Uses (Heritage Site Preserved for Cultural and Community Uses), which would both satisfy CA’s request and make Asia Society’s project acceptable. Subsequently the land was granted by the government to Asia Society at a token $1,000.

Before the matter was settled, CA found itself having to criticize Asia Society in 2004 over the financing of its approved development. That was occasioned by Asia Society’s application to the Hong Kong Jockey Club for $100 million, which it successfully obtained, to undertake the development. Apart from chiding Asia Society over the scale of the development, CA’s objection was directed at the commitment which the Society reportedly made earlier of raising the capital from its headquarters in the US, a pledge which did not materialize. CA might yet be proven wrong if the final structure were shown to be compatible with the natural and cultural heritage. As of 2008 the development was still under construction.

July 23, 2015 Posted by | Dr WK Chan book | Leave a comment