The Royal Gazette
Opinion (30 Nov. 2005)
Architectural design is an inherently subjective thing; what’s attractive to one is hideous to another. You can test that statement by trying to find a consensus on whether the ACE or XL buildings are more aesthetically pleasing. This is why the response to HSBC’s Front St. glass tower has been so surprising.
Remarkably, the bank has achieved something unprecedented in Bermuda, they’ve identified an issue that virtually everyone can agree on (other than opposition to Independence that is): The feedback to the proposed HSBC building on the former Trimingham’s site is ugly, or ‘Ogly’ as we prefer to say.
Let’s be thankful then that something positive might arise from HSBC’s redevelopment of the historic site; but let’s also be realistic.
Objecting to the development because it is ugly is an exercise in futility; there are lots of ugly buildings in town. And whether or not you believe that we need a glass palace towering over the charm of our flagging retail district, something other than a quaint department store will be built. The only question is scale.
But before we can decide what can be done to rein this in, it’s important to understand how we arrived at this point, and what the respective responsibilities of the public, Government and HSBC are.
If we’re honest with ourselves, the writing has been on the wall for some time, ever since Cabinet approved the sell off of Bermuda’s landmark retail real estate space to a foreign corporation – notwithstanding Finance Minister Paula Cox’s rather disingenuous assurance that the Bank of Bermuda is a local company, despite its 100% ownership by HSBC.
Conversely HSBC didn’t do itself any favours by pitching such a massive development – and a potential turning point in Front St. development – as a selfless act of corporate benevolence; this is primarily in Bermudians’ best interests we were told, shortly before the CEO of the "world’s local bank" rather presumptively told locals what our capital city should look like.
What is needed in this process, one that is going to act as a benchmark for future Front St. development, is for all the parties to this process – and that’s everyone – to be honest about whose interests they are representing, and then represent them honestly.
Whether they’ll admit it or not, HSBC’s sole responsibility is to maximise their shareholders’ return. And that’s exactly what it should be. All this noise about how much the bank cares about Bermuda is just a distraction.
The decision to buy the Bank of Bermuda was an economic one, as were the decisions to take over the Trimingham’s site and its subsequent redevelopment. Sure, they’ve made some concessions along the way, but those were designed to facilitate the goal of maximizing the return on that real estate.
HSBC is a shrewd operator, more so than most international conglomerates. Modern corporations are well aware that building and maintaining an image in the community as a ‘good corporate citizen’ can be good for business, but it isn’t because they’re benevolent, it’s because they want to make more money.
Then there’s the Government. The current leadership have displayed a penchant for rolling over to the banking giant; whether it be approving the buyout of the Bank of Bermuda or the subsequent takeover of the Trimingham’s site; two acts which required explicit Cabinet level approval.
But that’s water under Flatts bridge. We are where we are. The question before us now is where do we go from here? And the answer to that rests entirely with us. We have the power to put the brakes on this project and ensure a satisfactory resolution for both Bermudians and the bank.
What is clear from the fast-track planning request by HSBC is that they are looking for the fastest path to Ministerial approval by sidestepping the usual bureaucratic channels, aware that the proposal will almost certainly be rejected as is.
And that brings us to our responsibility as Bermudians. The Minister, the Government and the Opposition, need to know that they are expected to prevent this unsightly blot on the Bermudian landscape or suffer the political consequences. But both political parties have been suspiciously quiet to this point, at least publicly. John Barritt’s comments during the Throne Speech are the only ones I’ve heard from anyone thus far.
As a last resort, there is one surefire way to get HSBC’s attention, particularly as they’re so enthusiastically playing the role of caring corporate entity. If enough customers feel strongly that the Bank is over-reaching and not acting in the best interests of the community, you can take your business elsewhere.
Then they’ll sit up and notice.