July 6, 2007


Makeovers inject life into pre-war buildings

By Jessica Cheam

WHEN Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, drove past what used to be the Central Police Station in Beach Road, he did a double take.

The building was 'alive' - its walls were cloaked in citrus orange where only flaking white paint existed before and a lively buzz was coming from inside, the unmistakable sound of a young crowd.

The pre-war building is now home to the Raffles Design Institute.

In recent years, makeovers like this have given state properties all over the island a second lease of life.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) has been allocating old buildings to government agencies or offering them to companies and various organisations by way of tender.

The number put up for tender has been on a quick rise, going from 19 in 2004 to 33 in 2005. Last year, it was 50.

The market has responded enthusiastically, with 15 taken up in 2004, 21 in 2005 and 27 last year.

And the numbers are still climbing. As of last month, the SLA had put up 35 state properties for lease - nine have been awarded, with more pending approval.

The properties range from old institutions such as schools and hospitals to historic buildings, and some are sold on long leases ranging from 10 to 99 years.

Most are typically on short-term leases of three to nine years with the possibility of an extension.

To sweeten the deal, the SLA gives all its tenants a rent-free first three months so that they can carry out renovation work.

The short-term use of these properties is usually decided by the SLA and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). For the longer term, the URA decides the plans for these sites.

Businesses that have taken up these properties range from public-listed companies and international organisations to small start-ups.

Property and shipping company Vita Holdings is the SLA's biggest tenant, with 11 state properties in its portfolio.

Chief financial officer Kwek Siew Hwee said many of these sites have good locations and a rich heritage.

They are a good alternative to paying top dollar for land in prime locations, she said.

A growing number of companies have cottoned on, so stiff competition has driven up the number of bids for leases, she noted.

The recent crunch on office space in the Central Business District has also created demand for these state properties.

To ease the office space shortage, the SLA has offered nine properties for office use since February.

In the last two years, Singapore's burgeoning education sector has turned many an old property into commercial schools, childcare centres and student hostels.

In all, 25 properties have been turned over for such uses.

The EtonHouse chain has converted seven state properties into pre-schools. Chairman Jimmy Oh said the good location and spaciousness made them ideal for children.

EtonHouse's latest branch at Orchard Boulevard used to be the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association headquarters. It has been given a $1 million makeover.

International schools wooed here by the Economic Development Board have also set up campuses in these properties.

The SP Jain Centre of Management, a leading business school from India, is now housed at the site of the former Institute of Dental Health in Hyderabad Road, off Alexandra Road.

Its president Nitish Jain said it was a 'win-win situation' as the dilapidated property - unused for 12 years - got a facelift costing a few million dollars, while the school found a home bathed in history.

Among the SLA's tenants is Mr Sim Poh Ping, 58, who realised that with an influx of foreign students attending adult-education programmes at schools like SP Jain, it made sound business sense to set up hostels.

He now has four on state land, citing the big land area, reasonable rentals and the speed at which a lease can be secured as reasons for choosing only such properties.

A frequent gripe among the SLA's tenants, however, is that the properties' short lease leaves them with little time to recoup their investments.

Mr Sim's Katong Hostel, for example, cost $5 million to renovate and will only break even in three years, which is the length of its lease. He hopes to get it extended.

But short tenures have not deterred others.

About $20 million is being poured into the old Changi Hospital - vacant since 1997 - to turn it into a spa-resort. The lease is for three years, with an option for renewal up to nine years.

Mr Anthony Tan, a director of Bestway Properties which won the tender, called the site a gem.

Indeed, the demand for state properties for other purposes such as lifestyle businesses, the arts and hospitality and tourism activities has also been growing.

Sometimes, it takes foresight - and imagination - to see past the run-down state of these properties.

Popular nightspot Oosh off Dempsey Road, for example, now sits amid lush and swanky surroundings, a big turnaround from its previous life as an old British army camp lacking in many infrastructural facilities.

Co-owner Richard Goh said that after pumping $6 million on renovations, the laid-back, tropical atmosphere has begun pulling in the crowds.

Not all old properties attract tenants though. This could be because of their remote locations, short leases or restrictions on renovations.

One such property is 95 Tampines Road, formerly an Islamic religious school. The site, comprising a four-storey building and five blocks of single-storey buildings, was put up for tender in January last year. It has not drawn a single bid.

Dr Tan of the Singapore Heritage Society, noted that conserved properties have become fashionable.

In the early 1990s, old buildings and shophouses were shunned. Now, they are sought-after addresses for homes and offices.

But he said that because of these buildings' history, due consideration has to be paid to their new uses.

Many people were upset to see the old Thong Chai Medical Institute, a national monument, housing the disco-pub Lan Kwai Fong, he recalled.

The building has since been sold to a multi-level marketer of aloe vera products.

The old properties have a great potential to be commercially viable, said Dr Tan, 'but we must not lose the historical character and dignity of the place'.

[email protected]