Protecting the heritage of Soonstead

Khoo Salma & Penang Heritage Trust

Modified 30 Apr 2015, 8:25 am

Dear Mayor of Penang Island Patahiyah Ismail

It has come to our attention that there is a new proposal involving the historic mansion known as Soonstead at No 46-B Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. The proposal includes plans to ‘demolish part of the house... [and] to build one block of 13-storey (97 rooms) including three-storey parking bay.’

The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) strongly and unequivocally objects to the proposal. In a press interview, state Local Government Committee chairperson YB Chow Kon Yeow said, “The Council had taken into consideration views from the public and also comments from George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) that the building should be preserved,” and that the developer had been asked to amend the design to avoid any demolition.

The newly submitted plans thus appear to contravene this condition. What is of equal concern is that the plan to construct a high-rise block behind the existing historic building, which will have a tremendous visual impact on the setting of Soonstead and on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah as a whole.

Last year, PHT coordinated the highly publicised Save Soonstead petition, objecting to similar plans. The signature garnered considerable media attention, and received almost 4,000 signatures. Objections came from many significant parties, including Dr Richard Englehardt, former Unesco regional adviser for culture, who was involved in the process of obtaining George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Listing.

As a result of the petition, the plans were shelved, and PHT asked that the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) involve us in consultation regarding any further proposals. We were however not officially informed of the present submission. We expect that MBPP, as custodians of the City of Penang Island’s heritage, will take its role seriously and take into account the strong public interest expressed in the heritage of Soonstead.

We regret that one of Penang’s most iconic heritage buildings is once again threatened by an unsympathetic development proposal. While MBPP is now consulting the neighbours of Soonstead for their views, we feel that the overwhelming public interest in iconic architectural landmark warrants wider consultation.

We now ask for a moratorium on all development on this important road, a complete review of the heritage inventory and new urban design guidelines for Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, before any further development is considered.

At the time of the previous objections, we also suspected Soonstead, as well as other significant buildings along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, was missing from MBPP’s heritage inventory, and this suspicion was confirmed in several meetings we had with the MBPP regarding the on-going heritage inventory.

We therefore asked for a complete review of the heritage inventory of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, and also for the drafting of design guidelines to retain the character of this important street so as not to repeat the mistakes of façadism and façadomy which have marred Penang’s reputation as a heritage city.

KHOO SALMA is president, Penang Heritage Trust (PHT).