Blast from the past

By Lin Zhiqin / archdaily.com, dezeen.com, JLL, The Edge Property | August 8, 2015 9:00 AM SGT
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Integrated or mixed-use residential developments are popular concepts today and have been a hit with buyers. However, most people are unaware that several decades-old public housing were the pioneer of such concepts. Some examples are Tanjong Pagar Plaza, Tekka Market, Chinatown Complex and Waterloo Centre, all of which were completed between 1977 and 1984. As Singapore celebrates 50 years of progress, these integrated developments have become important artefacts of early urban planning efforts that supported Singapore’s economic progress and well-being of its people.
Tekka Market and Chinatown Complex comprise of high-rise public housing above a two- to three-storey podium blocks which houses wet markets, hawker centres and shops. Tanjong Pagar Plaza and Tekka Market also have a similar building typology of podium and towers albeit with a greater focus on shops than hawkers and eateries. This arrangement integrates the mixed-use components horizontally and utilises vertical stratification to reduce the impact of noise generated by the commercial component on the residences, and also respects the need for residents’ privacy by confining commercial activities to the low podium block.
These projects were likely influenced by the Unité d’Habitation designed by Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture. The Unité d’Habitation was envisioned as a “vertical garden city” that focused on communal living for the inhabitants to live, shop and play together. Since completion in 1952, it has successfully accommodated a mix of uses in addition to the 337 apartments that can house 1,600 residents. In the past, the seventh and eighth floors housed shops, eateries, galleries and a hostel where invited guests could stay. The hostel has since become a hotel and many of the shops are now occupied by specialist businesses such as medical practitioners and architects.
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Singapore has been visionary in its urban planning, simply because there was no room for mistakes in a city-state with scarce land and natural resources. While other developing countries adopted suburban living and car-centred urban planning, Singapore opted against urban sprawl with emphasis on transit-oriented planning and vertical development to maximise land-use. The implication is tremendous.
Singapore owes its liveability to this early vision. Unlike its neighbouring countries, Singapore is relatively free from traffic congestion, flood and other urban problems thanks to such early interventions. The vertical city is an environmentally sustainable urban planning model, comprising skyscrapers with small footprints, freeing up space for other uses and greenery.
In a vertical city, the population is concentrated in small areas of high density, thereby minimizing the need to construct long networks of roads and other forms of infrastructure. In contrast, the population of a low density city is sprawled over large areas with a corresponding increase in cost and land used to build the supporting infrastructure. Separately, the provision of shops within high-density residential developments seeks to meet the daily needs of residents, minimising their need to travel downtown and ease the strain on the existing transport infrastructure.
Singapore’s first concept plan in 1971 was formulated based on these influences. The plan envisioned the development of a ring of new high-density satellite towns around the central water catchment area. The first Mass Rapid Transit network was also an outcome of this plan.
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How they fare today
All four developments are located with the Central Area of Singapore and represent some of the best-located public housing in Singapore. Along with the Chinatown Complex, Tanjong Pagar Plaza is located just a stone’s throw away from the Central Business District, the prime office district of Singapore, with a supporting mix of retail, residential and hotel. Tanjong Pagar Plaza is located just 400m away from Tanjong Pagar MRT station, in closer proximity than The Pinnacle@Duxton, which is located just across Yan Kit Road and famous for being the priciest public housing in Singapore. The Tekka Market is located in historic Little India and Waterloo Centre in the Bras Basah – Bugis arts, learning and heritage district. Waterloo Street and Queen Street, which abut the Waterloo Centre are undergoing enhancements under the latest URA Master Plan to improve walkability and add more spaces for street-based activities.
Perhaps owing to their prime locations, they have withstood the test of time and are still bustling hives of activities today. Chinatown Complex and Tekka Market in particular, are popular with both locals and tourists who are drawn to the food and the colourful shops. In addition to serving food and drinks, the hawker centres double as places for social interaction, alongside public seating areas such as the courtyards that dot Tanjong Pagar Plaza.
In today’s lacklustre property market, the resale price of the residential units in these developments have held up well. For instance, the average price per squarefoot ($ psf) of resale three-room flats at Tanjong Pagar Plaza has dipped about 8% from 772 in 2Q2013 to 707 in 2Q2015 while that of four-room flats has dipped about 7% from 817 to 759 over the same period. In comparison, the HDB Resale Price Index has declined about 10% from 149.4 in 2Q2013 to 135 in 2Q2015. None of the other three developments had sufficient resale transactions over the intervening period for a price comparison.
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On the leasing front, the average rent across Singapore for three-room flats has declined about 4% from the peak of $2,042 in 4Q2013 to $1,953 in 2Q2015 while the average rent for four-room flats has declined by a similar percentage over the same period from $2,404 to $2,303. At Tanjong Pagar Plaza, the average rent per contract has fallen 11% from $2,400 in 4Q2013 to $2,131 in 2Q2015 but it has seen a recovery to $2,490 in 3Q2015 to date, 4% higher than in 4Q2013. For four-room flats, based on comparison between sparse available samples of only three contracts, rents have fallen 3% from $3,200 in 4Q2013 to $3,100 in 2Q2015. At Tekka Market, which saw more rental activity with six contracts in 4Q2013 and seven in 2Q2015, rents actually rose 5% from $2,698 to $2,821.
What the future holds
“Buildings tell a story – of the development of a country, of the growth of a nation of people, their culture and their way of life,” says Khaw Boon Wan, Minister for National Development, in his foreword in 50 Stories. “Collectively, the buildings where we live, work and play compose the familiar landscape of this city-state which we call home.”
While the Unité d’Habitation has been recognized by the UNESCO as a world heritage site, with its future secure as a conservation building, the future of Singapore’s mixed-use heritage buildings is less certain. Chinatown Complex and Tanjong Pagar Plaza are located within and next to the Chinatown Conservation Area respectively, and Tekka Market is located beside the Little India Conservation Area. However, these developments have not received conservation status. Owing to their proximity to gazetted historic districts that are well frequented by locals and tourists alike, they could perhaps be repackaged with a hospitality bent for economic relevance when the lease on the residences run down. Examples such as Waterloo Centre that are comparatively removed from touristy areas will likely struggle to maintain their economic relevance due to the scarcity of land, particularly in prime locations, and the exigencies of redevelopment and land-use intensification.
“Singapore’s open and transparent economy has successfully attracted real estate investors from all over the world,” says Chris Fossick, JLL’s Managing Director, in the foreword in 50 Stories, a coffee table book launched by JLL to commemorate SG50. “The country’s unique approach to urban planning has supported its physical evolution from an industrialising city to a thriving financial centre of international repute.” These four developments are historic examples of Singapore’s forward-thinking in design and planning, and represent a heritage including mixed-use developments not mentioned in this story. The teeming residents and users of such buildings attest to their relevance today.
This article appeared in The Edge Property Pullout of Issue 689 (August 10) of The Edge Singapore.

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