April 20, 2007

Holland V-turn?

Businesses there face parking woes as well as ongoing road and MRT construction. FRANKIE CHEE finds out if customers have got used to these and returned in droves

If the time spent looking for a carpark lot is a good indication of the popularity of the area, then Holland Village is still a hot leisure magnet.

Take flight stewardess Veron Chua, 26, and marketing executive Geraldine Baey, 27, who spent 20 to 30 minutes finding parking on a Saturday night.

They are not alone in braving the disruptions posed by MRT construction works (since 2004) and parking restrictions (since 2002) to come here to patronise the estimated 30 entertainment and food outlets.

But that is not to say that the place has been immune to the pain of adjusting to the new situation.

The area has Holland Avenue cutting through it, with Lorong Mambong and Lorong Liput on one side and Jalan Merah Saga on the other.

Tenants in the area, whose reputation as a hang-out dates back to the mid-1990s, admit that takings took a 20 per cent dive when carpark lots were removed in 2002 and 2004.

In 2002, 32 lots in Lorong Mambong were removed by the Traffic Police for security reasons. They also closed the road from 6.30pm to 4am daily.

In 2004, the Land Transport Authority removed 116 lots to accommodate MRT construction works. The Holland Village Station is part of the Circle Line and will be linked to the Harbour Front Station on one end and Bishan Station on the other.

Today, the tenants, who pay rentals of around $8,000 to $12,000 for an average 1,700sq ft shop, feel that only 10 to 15 per cent of the lost business has returned.

'We lost 10 per cent of our customers but we were fortunate in managing to build up a new 10 per cent,' says Ms Carol Wah, marketing manager of bar and restaurant company Imaginings.

It owns Wala Wala, a popular cafe bar, and one of its strategies was to have a live band that plays more mainstream music.

Still, she says some of the old regulars have continued to stay away, unwilling to put up with the traffic and construction constraints.

But Mr Gary Neo, manager of Tango's restaurant and bar, notes that things have improved 'because the roads have been widened' as construction works progress.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority has added 157 parking lots since 2004 to ease the parking woes. Such help may have come too late for some businesses, like seafood restaurant Crustacean, which closed last year.

Still, the area's appeal and potential have been enduring enough to lure newbies like Eski Bar and Harry's Bar to set up shop in the last three years. Perhaps they have one eye on enjoying better prospects when MRT trains roll into the area in 2010.

Certainly, the businesses seem to have regained a surer footing as customers adapt to the situation.

A visit by Life! last Saturday bore this out. Lorong Mambong, especially, is where the thick of the action is, drawing dinner crowds from 6.30pm onwards, and the drinking ones till as late as 1am.

There are over 10 eateries along that street alone, offering everything from Lebanese and Mexican to Japanese and French cuisines, alongside pubs and humbler coffee shops and cafes.

'I think people keep coming to Holland Village because of its bohemian concept. There are expats, locals and a good mix of shops like coffee shops and fine-dining places,' says Ms Wah.

Mr Andrew Koh, general manager of Harry's Bar in Holland Village, thinks the area is equipped to be a mini-Orchard Road, listing experienced vendors, no touting, a friendly setting and reasonable pricing as factors.

On Saturday night, when Life! visited, older heartlanders in T-shirts, shorts and slippers were nursing their Tiger beer and Guinness Stout in a coffee shop in Lorong Liput, cheering their favourite soccer team on TV, while younger customers in soccer jerseys and jeans gulped Erdinger and Hoegaarden beers at a more upmarket joint less than 100m away, catching the same soccer action.

Business operators say that although many Singaporeans frequent the place, expatriates still form the majority of their customers - as has been the case since the 1930s when British soldiers lived in the vicinity.

Mr Neo has noticed more and more younger customers turning up to party there over the past few years, attributing this to the presence of nearby tertiary institutions like the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic.

Weekdays are a little quieter, especially in the day. Wala Wala, for example, gets between 150 and 250 patrons on a weekday and between 300 and 400 each on Saturdays and Sundays.

While bugbears from parking and construction works remain, these have not caused rentals to drop.

Mr Danny Han, 48, a property agent who specialises in residential and business properties in the Holland area, says many tenants are paying around $11 per sq ft, and expects landlords to demand 20 to 30 per cent more as the completion date of the MRT draws near.

He also stresses that rentals differ within Holland Village, depending on the location.

He cites an example of a landlord who is asking for a monthly rental of $25,000 for 1,700sq ft of shop space in Lorong Liput, versus the $8,000 to $9,000 that some of his neighbouring tenants are paying now for a similar space.

'There are many interested parties who want to have a foothold in Holland Village and as long as the demand is there and with the new MRT station ready in a few years, rentals will continue to rise,' Mr Han notes.

Rentals for a second-storey, 1,300sq ft space in Lorong Mambong can go for more than $6,000 per month - and this is about half that for a ground-floor unit on the same road.

But despite the high rentals, the turnover of tenants in Holland Village is not high. Some, like Tango's, Michelangelo's Italian restaurant and Wala Wala, have been operating there for more than 10 years.

Industry sources say that while not all the businesses are doing well, they want to hang on because they expect a sharp spike in the number of customers once the MRT station opens.

Tenants can also expect more carpark lots after the construction works are over.

For now, they remain hopeful and optimistic.

As a spokesman for Foster's - An English Rose Cafe says: 'Holland Village is still all right now, especially on certain weekends and times of the year, but we all hope that by 2010, when the MRT station opens, things will be even better.'

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