Protecting Ellison Building: Talks in progress

The authorities said in August that one of the nine units in the conserved Ellison Building (above) would be torn down and later rebuilt, to make way for the construction of the North-South Corridor.
The authorities said in August that one of the nine units in the conserved Ellison Building (above) would be torn down and later rebuilt, to make way for the construction of the North-South Corridor.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

The authorities will continue to engage heritage groups regarding the conserved Ellison Building which will be affected by the development of the North-South Corridor.

Mr Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development, said in Parliament yesterday that the agencies involved will "work closely" with the heritage community on the construction methods to protect Ellison Building and "measures that should be taken to preserve the heritage and history of the site".

He said the Government will finalise its implementation plans for the building, which lies at the junction of Selegie Road and Rochor Canal Road, after these discussions.

In August, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) had said that one of Ellison Building's nine units would be torn down and later rebuilt, to make way for the construction of the corridor. This led to widespread concern and appeals from the heritage community.

The 1924 landmark was constructed by Romanian Jew Isaac Ellison and is known for its cupolas, as well as the Star of David on its facade.

The Straits Times previously reported that during engagement sessions with the agencies last month, experts had suggested other possible ways to avoid the demolition and reconstruction option.

These included propping up the structure and strengthening its foundation while the corridor, a 21.5km expressway connecting estates in the north to the city centre, is built, and providing underpinning support for the building while works are being done.

Mr Lee said the original alignment of the corridor would have affected more buildings such as the iconic Rex Cinema, and more units of the Ellison Building. But because the authorities recognised their heritage value, detailed engineering studies were done "over many years" to minimise the impact on them. On that basis, URA gazetted Rex Cinema and Ellison Building for conservation in 2008, knowing impact would be minimal, with a commitment to ensure any potential impact would be mitigated.

Mr Lee also said it had been the intention of the agencies to hire a conservation specialist after it issued the design and build pre-qualification tender to invite applications from contractors for the corridor.

He said the authorities have also met representatives from the heritage community twice.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun asked if the agencies had considered realigning the corridor to avoid the Ellison Building when the alignment plan for the corridor was first announced in 2011.

In response, Mr Lee said it was not possible to avoid the Ellison Building since public infrastructure criss-crosses underneath the area.

He said Rochor Canal runs under one side of Bukit Timah Road. He also noted that the North-East MRT Line cuts across Bukit Timah Road, while the Downtown MRT Line runs beneath Bukit Timah Road.

He said the tunnel cannot be lowered further into the ground to avoid the underground infrastructure as doing so will affect the MRT stations and even more buildings.

Mr Kok also asked if engagement with non-governmental organisations could happen more upstream, and if the ministry would consider making cultural impact assessments to include heritage, the environment, economy and social elements as mandatory for development projects.

Mr Lee highlighted the National Heritage Board's ongoing survey of sites and landmarks as a first step towards a more long-term strategic plan for heritage planning.

On cultural impact assessments, he said "this is something we need to study carefully".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'Protecting Ellison Building: Talks in progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe