Letter to MPPP on Soonstead

16 July 2014soonstead
 

Dato’ Patahiyah binti Ismail
Yang Dipertua
Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang
Paras 17, KOMTAR
Jalan Penang
10675 Pulau Pinang,

Yang Di Pertua,

We are writing to express our concern at the proposed redevelopment of ‘Soonstead’ (formerly ‘Northam Lodge’), Lot 1065, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Section 13, Daerah Timur Laut, Penang. We believe this has been brought up by Dr. Lim Mah Hui at a recent MPPP Council meeting, and we would like to follow up on this.

George Town is a World Heritage Site, and the world will be watching how we manage our architectural heritage. We must have a heritage policy for our monuments and sites, even those outside the World Heritage Site, and preserve the most important items. High at the top of the list is ‘Soonstead’.

The importance of ‘Soonstead’ to Penang’s history and heritage is indisputable. Designed by the notable Scottish architect James Stark of the prominent firm Stark and McNeill, ‘Soonstead’ is one of the most significant houses along the Northam Road, once known as ‘Millionaire’s Row’. The house helped popularise the ‘castle mansion’ style with George Town high society and deserves a firm place in Malaysia’s architectural history.

We object to the proposed 13 story development on the site because:

  1. ‘Soonstead’ is one of the only mansions left on Penang’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’ which maintains its extensive garden setting and close relationship with the sea.
    The proposed development of the site would irreversibly compromise the heritage value of this important building, overshadowing the mansion’s heritage and completely destroying the building’s link to the sea.
  2. The annexe buildings are an integral part of the building. Their demolition would erase part of the building’s history.
  3. One of the interesting features of the mansion is its dual nature, with its castle mansion front and elegant post-Regency bow-fronted back elevation. The proposed development, which overshadows the seaside elevation, would diminish the mansion’s considerable inventiveness and architectural merit.
  4. The policy of keeping just the front part of the heritage building and allowing for high rises behind has proved disastrous. Penang’s bad examples of façadism have been the laughing stock of heritage conservation experts all over the world. Photos of the badly conceived highrise developments behind ‘Hardwick’ and ‘Homestead’ are often shown at heritage conferences as bad examples and ‘what not to do’.
  5. The disfigurement of ‘Soonstead’ will diminish the significance of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah as one of the main arteries to the George Town World Heritage Site.

We fully support the owner’s right to enjoy ‘reasonable beneficial use’ of their property. However, we are convinced that with some imagination a more sympathetic plan can be drawn up which will position the property to take advantage of its aesthetic, cultural and historical values rather than maximising density. This would be a lasting legacy for Penang, befitting the developer’s reputation as a solid and successful company that has its roots in Penang.

The special heritage character of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah has been acknowledged in the MPPP Inventory of 20 years ago. (See: Bangunan-Bangunan Warisan di Pulau Pinang, George Town: Heritage Buildings of Penang Island, a pilot survey on an inventory of the historical buildings and ensembles of George Town, Penang: Lebuh Muntri and Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Supervised by Siegfried RCT Enders, GTZ).

In view of the ongoing and future threats to the special heritage character of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, we call upon the MPPP

a)      To review the impact of previous demolitions, inappropriate renovations and façadist developments which have been allowed at Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

b)      To revisit and review the previous heritage guidelines drawn up for Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 1990s, when there were arguments advising against development on the ocean side of the road. The PHT spent hundreds of hours helping MPPP to work out those guidelines – they should not be ignored or forgotten but seriously reviewed, revised and improved in the light of our UNESCO World Heritage listing.

c)      To draw up a Special Area Plan for Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah – unless these issues have been addressed in the Draft Local Plan – and in any case, we call for the speedy exhibition of this Draft Local Plan in order to put into place the protection of this area of special heritage character.

d)      To adhere to the highest standards of urban planning so that Penang can live up to its aspiration to be an ‘International and Intelligent City’ and the custodian of the UNESCO-listed George Town World Heritage Site.

The Penang Heritage Trust is ever willing to cooperate with the authorities to protect and preserve the Penang’s heritage for future generations.

Khoo Salma Nasution
President, Penang Heritage Trust

c.c.

YB Tuan Jagdeep Singh Deo a/l Karpal Singh, state executive councillor and board chairman for Housing and Urban Development Committee
Heritage Commissioner, National Heritage Department
Ms. Lim Chooi Ping, George Town World Heritage Incorporated
Dr. Lim Mah Hui, MPPP Municipal Councillor
Penang Heritage Trust council members
Other relevant parties

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