Published October 24, 2006

Harbouring huge changes

JANICE DING offers a vision of a bustling lifestyle enclave for HarbourFront in the next decade

WHAT is the formula for creating a waterfront lifestyle magnet? Colourful retail shops facing a promenade that lines the waterfront, al fresco dining overlooking a marina, abundant leisure activities and discoveries for young and old, and a picturesque haven for doing everything, yet nothing at all. A simple formula it appears, and widely replicated in cities all over the world - from Sydney's Darling Harbour, to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, to London's Canary Wharf, just to name a few. Simple it seems, yet not so simple to make a destination place out of our own HarbourFront precinct that lies across both sides of Telok Blangah Road stretching from Sentosa Gateway to Labrador Park.

Admittedly, much has been done to recreate this former shipyard district. Old buildings were spruced up and reconfigured, while new buildings were added. These included the revamped St James Power Station entertainment hub and the new million square feet mega mall VivoCity.

Infrastructure has been enhanced, starting with the opening of the HarbourFront MRT station in 2003, which is to be followed by the light rail linking Sentosa to the HarbourFront MRT station by the end of this year and the Circle Line by 2010. Major tourist attractions in the area, including Sentosa and Mount Faber, continue to undergo major reconstruction that will culminate in the completion of the Sentosa Integrated Resort in 2010. Two new luxury resort-styled residential enclaves have also sprung up in Keppel Bay and Sentosa Cove. At the Labrador Park end, Singapore Explorer's 55-room hotel and spa Villa Raintree Resort set in two colonial bungalows is due to open soon.

HarbourFront has its strengths, undoubtedly. The area is rich in natural beauty. Not only are there waterfront views, there are also elevated views from the hills and offshore perspectives from the surrounding islands, providing a whole spectrum of exploratory possibilities. HarbourFront is also rich in history and offers corners for discovery such as World War II relics and bunkers in Labrador Park and pre-war bungalows in parks like Mount Faber, Labrador Park and Telok Blangah Hill. It is just a short drive away from the CBD and is the central access node by which visitors can reach major attractions like Mount Faber, Sentosa and Labrador Park. It is also the area's centre of commercial activities.

For now, however, these strengths are shrouded by glaring, inherent weaknesses. The most significant of these is the lack of a continuum of activities between the various attractions. To be a typical successful waterfront development, attractions should ideally be aligned along the waterfront and linked by a continuous promenade, offering visitors a panoramic view of all the attractions and the possibility of stopping by any attraction amid their stroll. The attractions at HarbourFront are, however, aligned vertically to the waterfront stretching from Mount Faber to Sentosa, and separated by Telok Blangah Road. This greatly undermines the enjoyment of a panoramic view and creates a feeling of inaccessibility between the attractions.

At Mount Faber itself, connectivity and activity-based attractions, both major factors in enticing visitors to stay longer, are also lacking. Access to Mount Faber, a critical vantage point, is poor, particularly by foot, as there are few signs or footpaths. Visitors who drive would also be deterred by limited parking and the congestion of cars and tour buses along the only road that leads up to Mount Faber.

Another limitation of the area is the lack of street aesthetics from the main Telok Blangah Road. First impressions always count, and having good street aesthetics, particularly at highly visible junctions such as the Sentosa Gateway, are crucial in projecting a visitor-friendly image. However, two tired-looking buildings - Telok Blangah House and Citiport Centre - stand at this integral junction, giving the area a run-down look. This, coupled with the taxi and private vehicle queues that snake around the front of HarbourFront Centre, particularly during peak hours, project an unwelcoming 'back-door' image to the area.

Strategic planning for the entire Telok Blangah Road is also lacking. Diverse developments including utility buildings, workers' quarters, association buildings and defunct institutional buildings appear at irregular intervals along the stretch. This lends a chaotic and haphazard impression of the area.

Fortunately, most of these shortcomings can be overcome. In fact, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has proposed pedestrian walkways linking Mount Faber to Telok Blangah Hill to Kent Ridge Park to improve connectivity between attractions.

A three-year Master Plan for Mount Faber hinting at the unveiling of spa facilities and fine dining with a view from the hilltop and nature trails, among other improvements, is also in the works. Welcomed options to enhance the accessibility and attractiveness of Mount Faber include improving road access, providing more car park lots, introducing more foot trails and restoring pre-war bungalows into art and history museums, cafes, and even holiday villas. These would increase the number of little nooks for delightful discoveries.

Redevelopment of the strata-titled Telok Blangah House and Citiport Centre is likely to face difficulties due to their small land areas, multiple ownerships as well as their being adjacent to a place of worship, a cemetery, and a flyover. The individual owners could, however, look to sprucing up or upgrading these properties collectively, to capitalise on the growing demand and rising values of properties in the area. This will directly help to enhance the outlook of this integral Sentosa Gateway junction.

The 'back-door' image of this junction could also be improved by reconfiguring the HarbourFront buildings. Otherwise, some landscaping, a colourful boardwalk or a promenade with banners could be added to distract attention from the clutter. The promenade could also serve as a pleasant walkway leading visitors to the waterfront as well as the proposed hotel development in the current SPI building.

Keppel Land and Mapletree Investments, who still jointly hold large undeveloped plots along this stretch, could do much to enhance the attractiveness of the area by providing connectivity and continuity between their existing and future developments.

Besides enhancement works, the HarbourFront precinct has an undeniably strong growth potential, with large tracts of land available for development. The most visible plot is the vacant site directly opposite VivoCity, stretching from Harbour Lights to the open-air carpark beyond Seah Im Food Centre.

Although zoned for part residential and part park use under the Master Plan 2003, the site with its undulating slopes could create more visual impact and excitement as a mixed commercial and residential development, with the street-fronting portion forming a new commercial pocket. This would maximise its advantage of prominence along Telok Blangah Road, visible from street, train and cable car. This pocket of activity could also be an attractive respite from the bustling VivoCity junction and a crowd puller to Mount Faber.

Further up at the Morse and Wishart Roads locality, there are some churches and shophouses that, if redeveloped for mixed commercial use, could form a much longer street worthy of exploration all along the foot of Mount Faber. A commercial pocket at this spot looks all the more viable with the future Labrador Circle Line Station within walking distance.

In fact, in a subject group report on Urban Villages, Southern Ridges and Hillside Villages submitted to the Ministry of National Development in 2002, recommendations were made to increase commercial activity in the area. These included granting full commercial uses to shophouses at Morse Road with the upper floors to be used for budget hotels, using the vacant state land for a new village square with commercial activities, and building car and coach parks.

In a nutshell, if Sentosa could be likened to a house undergoing elaborate renovation, HarbourFront would be its gate and driveway, whose outlook should be just as impressionable on its guests, if not more.

As Singapore awaits the completion of the Sentosa Integrated Resort by 2010, it would be a waste to ignore the potential of its gateway. Increased traffic, vibrancy and real estate values could certainly be realised if the relevant authorities, landowners and even individual property owners could band together with a strategic vision to remake the area to its fullest potential.

HarbourFront waits to emerge from its cocoon.

The writer is senior analyst, research and consultancy, at Colliers International