The options are clear: four high-rise hotels or Georgetown's World Heritage status. Not both but one or the other.
Under stringent heritage guidelines sent to the committee in August 2007, a maximum height of 18m or roughly five storeys was set for new buildings in the two zones.
The four hotels are the Rice Miller boutique hotel in Weld Quay and the Boustead Royale Bintang Hotel project behind the General Post Office in Lebuh Downing, both lying in the heritage core zone, and the E&O Hotel extension and 23-storey hotel in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah by the Low Yat Group in the buffer zone, both of which will be 84.4m high.
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said three of the four hotels were approved by the previous state administration while the Boustead building was approved on June 26, less than two weeks before the Unesco status was granted.
What did the expert say:
Unesco regional adviser for the Asia-Pasific Dr Richard Engelhardt, who was present at the dialogue, said George Town had no choice but to follow the guidelines approved by the WHC.
“When the status is approved, the guidelines trump all previous existing regulations. Why would you apply for the status if there was no intention of following the guidelines?
“If the state decides to go along with the high-rises, I’m sure it will be called up by the WHC to explain why it allowed such a thing and whether it is compatible with the preservation of heritage,” he said.
“The worst-case scenario is that George Town is delisted, but that is not the usual situation as when a site applies for World Heritage status, it is interested in preserving the heritage,” he added.
CM Lim's reaction:
“Now, we’re caught in a conundrum. If we allow the buildings to go ahead, we may risk the status, but if we stop the buildings, we could be sued for hundreds of millions which will definitely bankrupt the local council.
“We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”
The World Heritage status has uplifted the general mood of Penangites. Its positive impact is undeniable. Tourist arrival is expected to register a steady 20% growth over the next 2-3 years. A number of individual investors are now getting more interested to help restore some of the pre-war houses.
The government should open up dialogue with these four hotel operators and developers. Losing the status means losing potential tourist arrivals and hotel business. If possible, these developers can help to enhance Penang's WHS and not contribute to destroy it.
Second, the state government should look at possible political and public backlash. Politically, they will become an easy target of the old administration. Never mind if 3 projects were approved by the previous government. That government was trounced.
But they could turn around and accused the DAP led government for losing the status they 'helped' to gain. Political and public backlash will be great. The same backlash will also be felt by the 4 hotel operators. E&O Hotel, a majestic hotel founded by the Sarkies brothers, is positioning itself as a heritage symbol. It should do the right thing.
Finally, if the four developers insist on suing the government please make it our fight too. We will not allow the state government to walk alone.
But I believe good sense will prevail in the end.