Healthy boost for Novena businesses

But the prognosis is not as good for those farther from medical hub


FROM being more of a residential area with private housing and condominiums, Novena has transformed into a medical hub in the past few years.

And with the private medical centres and malls that have sprouted up near the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), which has been there since 1909, and Novena MRT station, business is booming.

But things are different on the other side of Thomson Road, where quiet nostalgia is being pushed out by the busy new.

Well-known eateries like chicken rice restaurant Wee Nam Kee are moving to make way for development, while other shops are considering closing because they cannot compete with the shiny malls across the road.

For housewife Ivy Lee, 40, the change in the area she has called home for about 20 years has been dramatic.

"It's definitely more lively now," she told The Straits Times. "The malls that have sprung up and the growing medical cluster add to the diversity of the area. I like how it's becoming something of a regional hub."

And the developments have been coming thick and fast.

Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital opened last year, Novena Specialist Centre the year before, and Novena Medical Centre opened in 2007. All three offer medical suites for rent and for sale.

In August, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine's Novena campus will open its doors to its first batch of students. A new 300-bed infectious disease hospital just across from TTSH will also open by 2018.

More condominiums have also sprung up, in addition to landed property, said pre-school teacher Li Xin Juan, 24, who has lived in Novena her whole life.

And then there are the malls.

Novena Square underwent a revamp and was rebranded Velocity@Novena Square in 2006. Korean-themed mall Square 2 opened in 2007.

Tenants told The Straits Times that their sales have improved over the years with larger crowds made up of staff as well as patients and their families from the nearby medical cluster.

"Business has doubled since opening in 2008," said 55-year-old Teo Shu Tong, manager of Happy Walker at Velocity@Novena Square. The chain deals with products for foot problems. Said Mr Teo: "Our Novena branch is doing the best, probably because our business is health-related and we attract customers who may be patients or staff from the medical cluster. I heard that doctors sometimes refer patients to our shop."

Shops not offering health products or services have also been doing well.

At Nailclinique, business has picked up by 10 per cent since opening in 2007. The nail salon's owner, Ms Wendy Goh, 57, said: "The crowd is bigger nowadays, compared to when we first opened, possibly because of the new shops or condos in the area."

At the 428-room Oasia Hotel near the Novena MRT station, occupancy rates have doubled since it opened two years ago.

But while these developments have brought in the crowds, other businesses farther away from the MRT station have not seen the same numbers.

Across the road from Velocity@Novena Square, at the junction of Thomson Road and Newton Road, stand Goldhill Plaza and Goldhill Centre, which were developed around the early 1970s.

Owners of the older shops there said business is either stagnant or declining. Asked about the future, many seemed resigned to their fate or were intending to relocate.

At Prosimmon Golf Centre, Ms May Lee, 60, who has helped run the store for over 10 years, said business has declined by over 40 per cent in the last five years. "We are thinking of calling it a day," she said.

Z60 Stationery and Supplies store manager Cindy Wong said business has fallen by about 50 per cent from 10 years ago.

Ms Wong, who is in her 50s, said: "Last time, I ate my lunch in three rounds because I had to serve customers as I ate. Now, I'm not that busy and I can finish my lunch at one go."

The store, which has been in Goldhill Centre for about 25 years, will relocate to Innovation Place, an industrial development in Mandai at the end of this month.

Some shops had no choice but to move out.

Restaurants at Novena Ville had to relocate by the end of last month to make way for Novena Regency, a five-storey freehold mixed development of 100 residential and commercial units.

The new building, which is expected to be completed by 2017, will provide accommodation and shops for the surrounding medical hub and offices nearby, said a spokesman for Knight Frank, the marketing agent for Novena Regency.

Chicken rice restaurant Wee Nam Kee moved out about a week ago, after operating at Novena Ville for 26 years. It was the last of the eateries to vacate its premises. Restaurant owner Wee Toon Ouut, 75, said: "It is a pity that we have to move. We have to be closed for a period of time, before our new outlet opens at United Square." It is expected to open by end of this month.

"We'll miss the stretch of food at the Wee Nam Kee area. We found good food there," said Ms Li.

A few shops away from Mr Wee's restaurant is Novena Peranakan Cuisine, which has been at Novena Gardens for about 12 years.

Restaurant owner Jeffery Tan, 62, said: "There has been a larger crowd in Novena but they just pass us by and don't necessarily come in to eat."

Business has dropped by 20 per cent in the past decade, probably because "people have more food options in the new shopping malls", he said.

Mr Tan intends to close his Peranakan restaurant after his lease expires in about a year. "People must move on. If we are too old and cannot move on, then we have to learn to take a step back."