AL-AMEEN’S restaurant supervisor Robi Chakraborty remembers how just two years ago, the 24-hour eatery chain occupied three full units at Upper Bukit Timah.
Back then, the 22-year-old halal restaurant and its nearby competitor Al-Azhar, both famed for their Malay and Indian cuisine, were popular haunts for polytechnic students, office workers and even cyclists fresh from their rides on the Bukit Timah Mountain Bike Trail.
But Al-Ameen has since downsized to just a single unit at its Bukit Timah branch – it has four other outlets islandwide – to save on rent, said Mr Chakraborty.
Monthly takings have fallen by as much as half since construction on the Downtown MRT Line 2 began on the restaurant’s doorstep on Cheong Chin Nam Road, he explained.
Line 2, which will link the Bukit Timah corridor to the new Marina downtown, was originally slated for completion by late 2015.
But this date was later pushed to the middle of 2016 after the main contractor, Austrian builder Alpine Bau, filed for insolvency last June.
The added delay has become an extra headache for 20 or so businesses, who say customers are already complaining of noise, dust and even ground tremors while eating.
The part of Cheong Chin Nam Road used by diners for parking was also fenced off in 2010 due to the construction, and the one-lane road is now barely wider than an alley.
It is common to see delivery trucks haphazardly parking on the kerb to make way for cars to creep gingerly past.
While parking is available at one end of the road, and at another carpark at nearby Chun Tin Road, the crunch is evident during peak hours. It also does not help that there are frequent road diversions and traffic jams at the sharp bends near Upper Bukit Timah Road and Bukit Timah Link.
Other eateries along the stretch have also seen a drop in earnings, forcing some to come up with innovative ways to stem their losses.
Chinese restaurant LJ Superior Kway Teow Soup has introduced set lunch meals and taken its promotion efforts to Facebook.
It also provides a takeaway service for those unwilling to wait for parking, said a staff member who wanted to be known only as Ms Chew.
Till last July, Five Star Chicken Rice also gave a 5 per cent discount to diners who called in advance to order, made reservations or preferred takeaways, said one of its directors, Mr Brendan Yeo. “We ran the offer mainly because of the parking problem, so customers could drive by and pick up their food. It was quite effective.”
Others have not been so lucky. He said three vendors had moved in and out of the neighbouring unit. “It is tougher to survive, especially with the construction now,” said Mr Yeo, who also oversees the Five Star outlet at River Valley.
It is not just businesses which are having to cope. Residents, too, have to deal with the noise, dust and jams.
“The roads are diverted quite a lot unexpectedly, so we have had to look out for that,” said communications manager Cassandra Yeap, 24, who has been living in the area for 15 years.
Still, they are all hopeful that once the line starts operating in two years, it will mean better access to the area and more customers.
“We can still survive for now, but we think it will get better when the MRT line opens,” said Mr Chakraborty.
But some are worried that with the new MRT station, rents in the area will rise. The Straits Times understands that rentals for units on Cheong Chin Nam Road can be as high as $15,000 a month, while those on Lorong Kilat, just one street away, pay anywhere between $6,000 and $8,000.
Bukit Timah resident Sim Li-Shenn, who runs the Carpenter and Cook cafe on Lorong Kilat with two other partners, also wonders if the area her cafe is located in may go en bloc for redevelopment. “If that happens, we will have to look for another neighbourhood, which is a pity because it is so nice here.”
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 31, 2014
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