March 25, 2008


Winds of change bypass Boat Quay

By Tessa Wong

THESE should be happier times at Boat Quay.

Tourism is booming, eating and drinking under the stars is more popular than ever, and a multimillion-dollar revamp of the Singapore River was announced by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) last month.

For Boat Quay tenants, however, the outlook is as uncertain as it ever was, and a combination of higher rents and rising labour and material costs has several of them complaining that they are barely keeping their heads above, well, water.

The last few years have seen the area slowly drifting towards irrelevance, especially with the livelier scene at the recently revamped Clarke Quay and, beyond that, the easy riverfront culture at Robertson Quay.

It was not always like this.

When Boat Quay opened in 1993, it was the first grand riverfront attraction, and Singaporeans and tourists flocked there to eat and sip beer and wine by the river.

The good times lasted for a few years - and then its glossy sheen began to fade.

First came the violence. Underage drinking, coupled with loose gangs making a beeline for the area, led to numerous fights.

At one stage, police took the unprecedented step of setting up a mobile police post there on Friday and Saturday nights to deter the aggressive types.

But when the fights died down, dimly lit bars offering 'special massage' services started sprouting up along Circular Road. Litter and rats also became persistent problems.

All these issues have dimmed Boat Quay's star, despite its potential from being located close to the swanky financial district where banks, law firms and other upscale offices promise a steady stream of free-spending patrons.

Now, bad is getting worse, with an entrenched touting problem and high turnover aggravated by rising rents - some tenants say rentals have jumped by between 30 and 50 per cent in the last two years.

Tenants estimate the turnover rate is about 30 per cent and, according to Mr Colin MacDonald, president of the Boat Quay Business Association, at least 10 restaurants and nightspots have closed in the last two years due to high rents.

High turnover aside, Boat Quay struggles with its out-of-whack tenant mix: There are no fewer than 12 seafood restaurants and eight outlets dishing out Indian food among the 37 waterfront restaurants.

Customers say the lack of choice is a turn-off.

As a result of the cut-throat competition from newcomers who want to turn a quick buck and leave before customers wise up to their lack of quality, Boat Quay stalwarts have been suffering.

Mr Sukhbir Singh, who has been operating the Maharajah restaurant for 15 years, said: 'I've had friends who had to give up one, even two restaurants lately (because of the hikes). The landlords have no problem because there's always a huge waiting list of people who want to take up the spaces.'

How did the area get to be this way?

Many now say it comes down to the fact that this is a place with numerous landlords, who range from individuals to large companies such as United Overseas Bank and the Hong Leong Group.

Ironically, Boat Quay's fragmented ownership was hailed initially for allowing the area to grow spontaneously.

But having many owners, unlike Clarke Quay which is owned by one major landlord, Capitaland, has made it difficult to effect concerted measures to revamp the area.

Apart from a small group of tenants driving Boat Quay's business association, most stakeholders have preferred to concentrate on their own businesses, instead of committing money and time to improve the area.

'The different landlords and tenants all have their own priorities. Getting people to come together is such a big challenge,' lamented Mr Andrew Koh, general manager of Boat Quay fixture Harry's Bar.

Recently, the association rallied for one last push: a business improvement district study, undertaken by the association and supported by the STB and Spring Singapore.

The study, done in two parts over four years, examined how business partnerships succeeded in areas such as Times Square in New York and the downtown area of Tampa, Florida.

At the end of the study last June, the association proposed setting up an office and hiring professionals to come up with a single cohesive identity and marketing strategy for Boat Quay.

This would cost money - $20,000 to be exact - but the question was, who would pay?

To get around the problem of a lack of contributions from businesses and landlords, the association hoped for government funding and corporate sponsorship for the plan.

But the plan failed to take off.

Mr MacDonald said the STB had told the association, which is made up of only tenants, that due to the perceived lack of tangible landlord support, it could not support the plan.

Ms Carrie Kwik, the STB's covering director for cluster development (events and entertainment), said that the board would consider supporting them 'if the Boat Quay stakeholders can form a group representing the complete buy-in from both property and business owners, and demonstrate their capabilities to work together'.

She added: 'The STB's stand is to support an entity that is sustainable. Thus, we stressed the importance of having the property owners in the collective group.'

Mr Donald Han, managing director of property consultants Cushman and Wakefield, felt that while the Government was right in its hands-off approach of letting market forces shape the area, it was a pity that the plan was not pushed through.

Said Mr Han: 'I think those were steps in the right direction and it was worth a shot. If the stakeholders could have got their act together, it would have been great.'

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