Penang heritage group seeks stop to development at '7 streets precinct'

The tenants of Lorong Bertam are now facing eviction. ― Pictures by KE Ooi
The tenants of Lorong Bertam are now facing eviction. ― Pictures by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Sept 1 ― Generations-old businesses including some that have been around since before Merdeka are facing eviction from pre-war shophouses on the fringes of George Town world heritage zone bought by a Singaporean-based firm.

According to George Town Heritage Action (GTHA), many have already shuttered their businesses and moved out, but more could face the same fate.

“The company has bought up over 200 heritage houses in George Town and we are deeply concerned as they are uprooting a great number of families and gutting a great number of heritage buildings in the city,” GTHA representative Mark Lay told a press conference at Lorong Bertam today.

He claimed the company also acquired 128 houses around the “7 streets precinct”, a row of seven streets known locally as “chit tiau lor” (translated to mean seven streets) that has a rich cultural heritage.

“If we refer to an old 1989 MPPP guidelines and also the 2007 dossier to Unesco, these two documents detailed the need to conserve the 7 streets heritage precinct,” he said.

He claimed the precinct was included in the world heritage site application to Unesco so it could also be instrumental towards George Town being inscribed as a world heritage site.

Other than the precinct, Lay said the company also bought rows of heritage shophouses all around the city including a total 26 along Penang Road and Bertam Lane.

Now, the tenants of these shophouses are facing eviction.

He alleged that the company's model is to buy, evict, renovate, and build, before drastically increasing rentals for high end businesses that locals could not afford.

“This is instant gentrification of the city and rentals will be increased four times that locals can't afford so it will become a rich man's land,” he claimed.

He said the company has applied to build a 46-storey condominium and office development at the site of 37 houses along Noordin Street and Gurdwara Road.

An aeriel view of the 7 streets precinct that spreads seven streets from Magazine Road, Noordin Street, Presgrave Street, Tye Sin Street, Macallum Street, Katz Street to Cecil Street.
An aeriel view of the 7 streets precinct that spreads seven streets from Magazine Road, Noordin Street, Presgrave Street, Tye Sin Street, Macallum Street, Katz Street to Cecil Street.

“If we look at all their development applications to the council, many of their plans are to demolish the back portion of the heritage houses and build high rises,” he said.

Lay urged the state government to show political will and stop such massive development plans that will not benefit the local communities.

“These developments will drastically increase rentals that local Penangites will be unable to afford,” he said.

He suggested that the state government or the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) limit the change of use for heritage buildings.

“They can zone out certain activities that do not benefit the local community and no approve plans that do not benefit the community,” he said.

He also suggested that the state make use of its Penang Heritage Enactment 2011 and its heritage regulations that finally came into force today.

“The heritage commissioner has a lot of power, the enactment is there to protect heritage areas and buildings outside the heritage zone, so use this to protect the 7 streets precinct,” he said.

He said the heritage commissioner could declare the precinct a protected area, preventing the firm from demolishing the houses and building high end high rises in its place.

“We can also involve the National Heritage Department to consider extending the world heritage site buffer zone to include the 7 streets precinct,” he suggested.

Lay also suggested that when Unesco officials visit George Town over the Sia Boey issue, they could also be consulted on the massive developments proposed for the 7 streets precinct.

“We could always get their views and opinions on this,” he said.

He said what's most important is that the state must have political willpower to stop the instant gentrification of George Town, particularly on the fringes of the heritage zone.

“We are not against development, they can build high rises and developments in Bayan Lepas, at the planned reclaimed lands, in Batu Kawan, why build here?” he said.