Colombo Fort – from bustle to beauty

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Dhananjani Silva

Grand plans are on the cards to make Colombo Fort not only a tourist and cultural hub but also an area replete with restaurants and open-air cafes, in the benevolent shadows of restored old buildings.

Many of the Government offices have already been moved to sites at Battaramulla, said Urban and Sacred Areas Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, explaining that plans to move President’s House will not happen immediately due to security reasons and heavy expenditure.

Demolition work on the Queen’s and the White Horse buildings in progress

Pointing out that it would be part of the second stage of developing Sri Jayewardhanapura as the administrative capital, the Minister said Colombo will remain as the commercial hub. The intention is not only to move President’s House but simultaneously the Presidential Secretariat and all Government buildings whose current home is the Fort.

“We have done a new city (Colombo) zoning last year under which many special places are protected,” he assured, adding that areas around landmarks such as Transworks House would be developed keeping the building’s original characteristics intact while the Chalmer’s Granary area would undergo mixed development with commercial and housing facilities.

Urban Development Authority (UDA) Director-General Prasanna Silva elaborated on the development of ‘Transworks Square’, explaining that as the site included the archaeologically important Public Works Department which depicts colonial British architecture, the land around it was of enormous value.

Two forces of development would be used in the area, the Sunday Times understands – historical low-rise and modern high-rise buildings, with a colonnaded arcade, urban square and high-rise towers.
Transworks House is to be turned into a tourist facility centre and museum while around it will be business, commercial and parking facilities, with connections to the railway and tram services.

It will be a financial hub with hotel facilities, said Mr. Silva, explaining that there will also be a public square and pathways with unrestricted access during day and night. The public areas would be paved and landscaped with shady trees and street furniture

Minister Gunawardena pointed out that with the setting up of a tram service at Fort and a modern rail terminal, people intending to board a flight could check in their baggage at Fort and take an express train to be at Katunayake in 20 minutes.

Focusing on some of the other areas in the city, Mr. Gunawardena said the grandeur befitting Independence Square and its environs will be restored. The Auditor General’s Department will be moved to Battaramulla and the building turned into a museum, as many schoolchildren frequent the area. Crossing over from this location, a green walkway along Independence Avenue will lead to the state-of-the-art performance centre (the biggest in South Asia) now under construction next to Kalabavana.

When asked whether the demolition of some old buildings especially along Upper Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha has been sanctioned, Mr. Gunewardena said that no building will face such a fate if it is not in danger of collapsing.

Explaining the procedure to get such a sanction, he said, if the owner felt that a building was a threat and wanted to demolish it and rebuild on that property, permission could be sought from the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC).

However, Colombo Fort has been declared a special area because of the many historic buildings that come under the UDA unlike other areas with such landmarks which are under the Department of Archaeology, the Sunday Times understands.

Some buildings, however, were affected by the Central Bank bomb blast and even though repaired may be dangerous. Then the owner needs to seek demolition approval which will be granted only after the building has been evaluated by a team comprising CMC and UDA officials and technical consultants. The same applies for repairs or alterations that owners wish to undertake to old buildings, it is learnt.
Taking the case of Gaffoor building, a landmark in Fort, the Minister said authorities are trying to protect it, but the whole structure is sinking.

The ground underneath the building has many tunnels connecting the Beira and the port through which cargo had been sent in the olden days. “Even if permission is granted to knock down old buildings we insist that they retain the architectural façade,” he added.

Meanwhile, the UDA Director-General explained that within Fort are sites demarcated as conservation areas but others where new development can take place. Apart from those sites covered under the Antiquities Act, the UDA development plans also have a List of Old Buildings for Colombo city including Fort drawn up in consultation with the Archaeology Department.

“We check with the Archaeology Department on the merit of architectural importance before re-development.

There are ways of conservation and different techniques and a value assessment is done. Reconstruction may be carried out in the interior but it is mandatory for the architectural façade to be maintained,” he said, explaining that reconstruction or alteration of some buildings like the Old Parliament is taboo.

Shopkeepers ousted as demolition takes place

Many antique coin and jewellery shop owners whose families have been carrying out business on Upper Chatham Street since the 1950s are up in arms against the demolition of their rented premises and one occupying the Queen’s Building has even taken the matter to court.

Although the Colombo District Court in December had issued an injunction to stay the demolition, as soon as it was removed on March 2, the owner had taken off the roof compelling the shop-owner to move his things out.

Even though the final hearing of the case is scheduled for April 23, the owner has already demolished the Queen’s Building, it is learnt. Meanwhile, a major robbery which had occurred on January 27 in Queen’s Building when the adjoining White Horse Building was under demolition, has still not been solved, lamented shop owner M.B.A. Johar, adding that a complaint had been made to the Fort Police Station.

When the White Horse Building was being pulled down, the Queen’s Building had also got damaged, allowing the robbers to get in and vanish with Rs. 5 million and US$ 80 cash, he said.

“Now we are not only without premises to do business but no headway has been made with regard to the robbery,” he said. Both the Queen’s and White Horse buildings were on a 26-perch block, with about eight shop owners and seven offices.

When asked by the Sunday Times the UDA Director-General said the two buildings were not listed and the matter is between the owners and the tenants. The UDA gave clearance for demolition on condition that the tenants should be looked after.

“Owners of buildings are coming to us when they are encumbered with a tenant and want to demolish their buildings. But the UDA cannot intervene in this to negotiate with the tenants, as we do not get into legal issues, but we have a condition to say that the tenants need to be looked after if the building is to be demolished,” he added.

Above and Below: Plans depicting the proposed redevelopment of Transworks Square
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