While some parties, including landowners and developers, were unhappy when George Town was finally made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008, renowned architect Laurence Loh, a heritage conservationist, heaved a sigh of relief.
The inscription was the culmination of decades of hard work by many people, including Loh.
Now, even detractors are using the World Heritage site status as a selling point for their projects, some of which are nowhere near or within the heritage enclave.
“These are the very people who were cursing us saying the listing would bring prices down. Now they are the very people who are promoting it and eating humble pie,” said Loh.
The Edge Financial Daily caught up with Loh at the historical Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Loh’s conservation work on the mansion earned the project the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for the most excellent project in 2000.
Loh described the world heritage listing as the most successful “land re-evaluation exercise” in the history of Penang.
“If you think about it, which area has now been revalued so much that it will keep going up steadily for the next 60 years? No doubt, there are other areas where prices are dictated by market forces but this is heritage real estate,” Loh said.
According to valuation reports by several real estate agencies, from a mere RM200 per sq ft prior to the inscription, prices have gone up to RM600 per sq ft in the core areas while some owners are demanding more than RM800 per sq ft, said Loh.
“Rentals have also steadily gone up over the past two years,” Loh added.
Loh said before the inscription, properties would only fetch higher prices if they were fully renovated. The scenario has changed. People now want shophouses in their original state, he said.
“Buyers who used to say I will only pay you higher if it is fully renovated are now saying that if it is in the original condition, I will pay more.”
Other selling points are location, who the owner or architect was, and the historical and architectural significance of the site. Today, properties that used to be described as “rent control” and “prewar houses” are being touted as “heritage”.
Loh said other than value appreciation, the conferment of World Heritage site status also attracts the cultural traveller who would spend time in Penang, as opposed to the usual type of tourists.
He also said the listing has set Penang apart from the rest of Malaysia. The challenge now is to ensure that development is holistic in nature, and zonal strength is turned into a collective and regional strength.
“Don’t only conserve what’s within the heritage site and ignore historical settings outside the enclave. We should think further ahead,” Loh stressed.
He was referring to huge development projects located next to heritage buildings outside the core and buffer zones where height restrictions or other conditions set by Unesco do not apply.
Loh’s view is that both heritage and development could be done in harmony by finding a different paradigm which would then add value to the entire state.
Penang would lose its identity if it started looking like the Klang Valley, he said.
“We now have this distinct advantage, because we are different. What new buildings can an architect bring to Penang that we cannot find in KL or Singapore? That is the challenge I would throw at developers,” he said.
He suggested that George Town, Bayan Baru, Butterworth and Balik Pulau should be looked at as one city just like Greater London, Hongkong and Kowloon.
“You have to think like that and we have to be holistic as a single entity... Everyone has been myopic and they have been looking at just this site,” Loh added.
He said it would be interesting to see how much emphasis is put into the local plan for the rest of the state as a holistic heritage entity.
“The previous state government had announced that while everything inside the city had to abide by the heritage guidelines, others did not have to do so. Everything which is outside [the city] has also to be looked into and that shift must come very quickly or we will have another battle again. There are now so many sites under threat but nobody is talking about it,” Loh said.
He cited the example of a house along Pykett Avenue which was demolished recently. The house on a 3.38-acre site belonged to the late Khaw Bian Cheng. Khaw, who had served as the governor of Satun and Yala in Thailand and was the last quasi governor living in Penang, was the centre of Thai influence in the state.
According to Loh, the house was intact but a family battle led to it being sold to a developer who demolished it without a whimper from anyone. He added that plans were also afoot to develop the Tenby School site along Jalan Kelawai which was listed.
“Nobody said anything and these are now the big battles we have to fight,” he added.
Penang local government committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow said the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) was still relying on a list of Class 1 and Class 2 heritage buildings which had been compiled even before the Unesco listing.
“I believe when the lists were done, even the owners were not consulted and some of those whose property has been listed as Class 2, which allows for development around the building, are asking for their properties to be reassessed.”
Chow pointed out that even the National Heritage Act stipulated that once a building is classified as heritage, the owner can serve a purchase order on the authorities who had classified the building. If the owner cannot do anything due to the classification, he can demand that the authorities buy the property.
On the Pykett Avenue house referred to by Loh, Chow said the house was not even listed and the only offence committed by the owner was to demolish it without approval from the council.
Chow said plans had been submitted by a developer to build condominiums at the Tenby International School site where one of the buildings was a Class 2 building.
“This will allow the developer to build around the classified building but plans for the project have yet to be approved,” he added.
Loh acknowledged that there were efforts by many landlords who see that properties can be developed without having to be demolished.
Some of these efforts are being helped along by grants given out by Khazanah Nasional Sdn Bhd for conservation and restoration works. The grants are managed by Think City Sdn Bhd, of which Loh is also a director.
Think City is a special project vehicle (SPV) established by Khazanah as a 100% subsidiary to implement and manage the George Town Grants Programme (GTGP) with a RM20 million outlay. It has also been entrusted to help in the creation of a Special Area Plan and a heritage management plan for the George Town World Heritage Site.
The GTGP is aimed at creating a culturally vibrant and sustainable city. During the first round of approvals in April this year, Think City gave out 18 grants worth RM1.85 million for 11 physical conservation projects and seven grants for documentation projects related to physical conservation and urban rejuvenation within the George Town Heritage Site.
Of these first round projects, the Carpenters Guild or Lo Pun Hong project has been completed.
The second round of approvals in August saw 10 grants worth RM876,328 being given out, of which six were for physical conservation projects and four were for cultural mapping projects related to physical conservation and urban rejuvenation.
Among the other projects which have also been allocated grants are the restoration of Seven Terraces at Stewart Lane by Baiduri Sdn Bhd (about RM178,000); the publication of a biographical dictionary of Penang mercantile personalities (RM122,000); and documentational work on the Sun Yat Sen Heritage Trail by the Penang Heritage Trust (RM100,000).
“So now, we are in fact spreading the value to everybody, not only people who have money to do new buildings; even those with old buildings can benefit. I don’t care where the money comes from, as long as it goes to heritage,” said Loh, obviously referring to the RM20 million entrusted to Think City from Khazanah Nasional to be distributed .
The subject of funding has been a sore point with the state government which has been hitting out at the federal government for not directly allocating the funds to the state as it did for Malacca, which is jointly listed with Penang. The Malacca state government was allocated RM30 million for its heritage con servation projects.
“This is the first agency worldwide that is giving out grants, not loans, towards heritage conservation to individuals, which I have been advocating for many years,” he said.
Loh said the unique financing system was the only way to kickstart restoration works which are aiding heritage.
“No other country is giving out such grants to individuals using a very transparent system,” he added.
A passion for conservation
ASSOCIATE Professor Laurence Loh, an architect by profession, has spent the past 26 years protecting, conserving, managing and sustaining the cultural heritage of Malaysia.
Trained at the Architectural Association in London, he runs the architectural practices of Laurence Loh Akitek and Arkitek LLA Sdn Bhd. His expertise and contributions in built heritage have been acknowledged nationally and regionally.
Loh is best known for the restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang that won the ‘Most Excellent Project’ at the inaugural Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation 2000.
This was followed by the Unesco Heritage Award of Merit for the restoration of the Cheng Hoon Teng temple in Malacca.
In 2008, his restoration of Stadium Merdeka won the Unesco Award of Excellence, whilst Suffolk House in Penang, the only surviving Anglo-Indian Georgian mansion in Southeast Asia, was accorded the Unesco Award of Distinction. His Lunas Rubber Smokehouse project has been shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan Awards.
Loh is also the deputy president of Badan Warisan Malaysia, a trust that provides advisory services and skills training within the whole spectrum of cultural heritage conservation.
He is presently a director of Think City Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Khazanah National Bhd which manages a grants programme for the World Heritage Site of George Town, and the Asian Academy for Cultural Heritage Management.
In parallel with his professional career path, Loh also devotes his time to education.
He currently teaches at the University of Hong Kong and at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome.
This article appeared on the Penang Pulse page,The Edge Financial Daily, October 11, 2010.