Prof Yu calls for rethink of Singapore’s suburban skyline

/ EdgeProp Singapore
October 4, 2019 8:00 AM SGT
The view towards the Anchorvale neighbourhood in Sengkang (Picture: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Professor Yu Shi Ming has been a judge for the EdgeProp Singapore Excellence Awards for three consecutive years. A leading academic, Yu is the head of the real estate department at the National University of Singapore, where he has taught for 35 years. He has also done extensive research in real estate valuation, sustainability issues, housing provision and pricing.
Having toured residential projects across Singapore over the years, Yu is concerned about suburban HDB towns such as Sengkang, Yishun and Woodlands with “their massive blocks of concrete” – dense, high-rise HDB blocks, as well as large-scale private condos and executive condos – that have sprung up over the past two decades. He blames the profile of these towns on plot ratios and height restrictions stipulated in the government land tenders. “These two constraints naturally force developers to build these tall, box-like structures and very dense projects,” he says. “The result is a monotonous skyline.”
Professor Yu Shi Ming, head of department of real estate at NUS (Picture: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
This is in contrast to the prime districts where there is a mix of old and new developments, low- and high-rise residential blocks, conservation shophouses and private housing estates. Buildings of different vintages, different heights and designs make for “a more interesting skyline”, says Yu. “Our CBD skyline is a good example.” He points to the tall skyscrapers – office and apartment towers in Tanjong Pagar – which are juxtaposed against conservation shophouses.

Paradigm shift: ‘Two-envelope system’

A paradigm shift is needed in the real estate industry. “It’s time for a rethink,” says Yu. He says government awards of some land tenders under the two-envelope system – based on design, then price, instead of just price – are a step in the right direction. The two-envelope system was implemented for the South Beach site on Beach Road, which was awarded 12 years ago and has since been redeveloped into the South Beach integrated development with JW Marriott Singapore, South Beach Residences and a Grade-A office tower, as well as F&B outlets which are linked to the Esplanade MRT Station on the Circle Line.
The two-envelope system was implemented for the South Beach site on Beach Road, which has since been redeveloped into the South Beach integrated development (Picture: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
More recently, the redevelopment of the Holland Road site, which was won by a Far East Organization-led consortium last year, was also awarded based on the two-envelope system. Three Government Land Sales (GLS) sites awarded last year under the two-envelope system were white sites in suburban areas, namely at Hillview Rise, which was won by Hong Leong Group; Sengkang Central, which was awarded to a joint venture between CapitaLand and City Developments; and Pasir Ris Central, which was purchased by Allgreen Properties.
Yu also suggests that the government could offer residential sites for sale under the GLS programme with flexible plot ratios rather than just a maximum plot ratio. “This is how we can produce iconic designs and developments that make a statement, and I believe [this test] should be attempted,” he says.
The redevelopment of the Holland Road site, which was won by a Far East Organization-led consortium last year, was also awarded based on the two-envelope system. (Picture: URA/Far East Organization)

New HDB towns

In July last year, a memorandum of understanding was signed by JTC and ST Engineering for the design, development and deployment of an Open Digital Platform for the Punggol Digital District. Occupying 50ha, it is the first district in Singapore to adopt an integrated masterplan approach with a collaboration between Infocomm Media Development Authority, JTC, Singapore Institute of Technology and the URA.
The HDB’s 24th and latest town, Tengah, will cover a land area of 700 ha. It will be the size of Bishan town, and will have a total of 42,000 new homes when fully developed. The site will have five unique housing districts which will be developed progressively. “In keeping with the vision for Tengah as a ‘Forest Town’, each of these districts will be designed with the community and nature in mind, so that residents can experience quality living with nature and greenery at their doorstep,” according to the HDB in a release in September 2016.
An artist impression of Garden Vale @ Tengah, a new BTO in Tengah (Picture: HDB)
The testing of new technology and digitalisation as seen in the Punggol Digital District will likewise be launched in new HDB towns like Tengah, says Yu.
“Today, housing design in Singapore focuses on engaging the community, developing more integrated buildings, and employing these elements to bring people together,” says Yu. “On top of building up physical housing, building communities has been the role of the HDB since its inception in 1960.”

Catering for ageing population and growth

With Singapore’s ageing population, more integrated developments will feature housing for seniors and eldercare facilities, notes Yu. These are already seen at Kampong Admiralty and in the upcoming Yew Tee integrated development.
Singapore’s population today stands at 5.7 million. Whether the population will hit 6.9 million by 2030 as stipulated in the population White Paper in 2011; or 10 million, which Liu Thai Ker, architect and chief planner for the HDB and then the URA, had proposed in 2017, remains to be seen.
“We have [enough] room to grow but we must ensure that employment and transport keeps pace with population growth,” says Yu. “Our housing provision is always one or two steps ahead of population growth, and sometimes my concern is that we tend to over-build.” Besides housing, Yu feels that infrastructure, amenities and services have to grow in line with housing so people do not feel crowded out, he adds.
Housing in Singapore has come a long way from the “mass-produced blocks of flats”, notes Yu, especially in the early days when the country faced a housing shortage. “This drive towards progress has become our hallmark,” he adds. “It’s a very Singaporean trait, and it means that we are not satisfied with what we have and we strive to keep improving.”
Yu asserts: “I’m very proud of what we have achieved over the past 54 years. I’m looking forward to seeing even better things ahead.”
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