GEORGE TOWN, Feb 15 ― Faced with hordes of tourists annually, Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) is working on an overall masterplan that it hopes will better preserve the natural environment of the hills that tower over the island state and is home to diverse flora, fauna and colonial-era buildings.
PHC general manager Datuk Cheok Lay Leng said the masterplan was to ensure the sustainability of the hill resort and its existing infrastructure.
“Our mission is to focus on the preservation and restoration of the hill, what we want to do is to beautify and maintain the hill, not to expand or develop it,” he said in a recent interview with Malay Mail.
He said many environmentalists often jump the gun and mistake slope strengthening work for the new buildings when the construction was otherwise.
“We must not forget, Penang Hill was already developed during the colonial era, there were around 52 bungalows built on the hill and we have to maintain the hill, the infrastructure and continuously strengthen the slopes,” he said.
Cheok said PHC is open to constructive feedback and encouraged NGOs to step up and assist them in their goals of maintaining the natural beauty of the hill.
He added that care has to be taken with regards to the funicular system that transports visitors and goods up and down the hills, as the rail tracks remain sensitive to the smallest alteration even after upgrades.
“Branches could fall on it or even animals such as monitor lizards run across it and if there is even a slight dent, we have to stop the service to repair it,” he explained.
Cheok stressed that such incidents were beyond PHC’s control, adding that it could only minimise their occurrences by building fences on both sides of the tracks.
For now, PHC has a few restoration and upgrading projects in the pipeline.
Cheok said some groups often misunderstood PHC’s intentions to refurbish and repurpose the heritage bungalows on the hill instead of leaving them vacant and susceptible to damage from the elements.
One of the projects is to restore an impressive Art Deco style bungalow perched on the edge of the hillside, aptly named Edgecliff.
Work to strengthen the hill slopes around the bungalow, believed to have been built around the 1950s, is currently underway. An architect has already been appointed to restore the building.
Edgecliff is to be turned into a gallery and educational centre with a rooftop cafe that will provide its visitors a spectacular 270-degree view of the island state.
“There will be a mini outdoor theatre for events so we can hold talks and small events here,” Cheok said.
The visitors centre will not only be a museum on the history of the hill and its funicular train system but will act as an educational centre to spur interest in its diverse flora and fauna.
Another bungalow slotted for restoration is the Woodside Cottage, which is a category II heritage building with a scenic view of George Town city spread out below.
Cheok said PHC is in the midst of strengthening the slope and once done, will call a request for proposal to restore the cottage.
“We want it to be a boutique hotel, the building will be restored, its heritage structure will be maintained and there will not be massive development,” he said, adding that there were some land issues that he believes can be resolved soon.
“Our target is to resolve the issues and get the restoration works started by the end of the year,” he said.
Another project known as Convalescent Bungalow marked for restoration has also drawn criticism due to the misconception that a 300-room hotel will be built on the grounds, which Cheok debunked.
“We are looking at a small-sized boutique hotel, not a 300-room hotel and we are not changing the structure of the building,” he said.
Cheok said that the land on which Convalescent Bungalow stands was not clearly zoned when it was built in 1803 and as such currently, the plot sits on what is now classified as forest reserve land.
Because of the zoning issue, Cheok said restoration works have not started yet and will take “some time” to resolve.
Even the plans to upgrade the old quarters along the Coolie Line, which is also known as Strawberry Valley. It was so named because the colonial British planted the berries there when temperatures averaged 18 degrees Celsius back in the 1800s long before the workers’ quarters were built there.
“There are about 12 units of old workers’ quarters that are dilapidated and a sore sight, almost like Halloween-themed buildings, other than posing safety issues to anyone who ventured near it,” Cheok said.
He said the plan was to put up affordable accommodations such as eco-chalets on the existing footprint of the old quarters.
“There will not be any cutting of slopes, we will be strengthening and stabilising the slopes,” he emphasised.
PHC expects to issue a request for proposal for the Coolie Line project sometime this year.