Singapore's great port migration - which has major implications for both the shipping and real estate sectors - has crossed a key milestone well ahead of schedule.
Port operator PSA Singapore has moved all its 500 staff from Tanjong Pagar Terminal to the newer Pasir Panjang Terminal and is dismantling the cranes, as part of plans for the even bigger move to the future mega-port at Tuas. The relocation - well ahead of the city port's lease expiry in 2027 - means PSA might be ready to hand the 80ha site back to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) far earlier than expected.
PSA did not comment on whether it is looking at doing so, but a URA spokesman told The Straits Times: "We are in discussions with PSA on this matter, and are not able to comment further at the moment."
This, in turn, has raised the possibility that plans for the Greater Southern Waterfront project - a sprawling 1,000ha development three times the size of Marina Bay - could kick off faster than expected.
The huge project is to be built on land freed up when the ports in the city, including Tanjong Pagar, and Pasir Panjang are relocated to Tuas.
The Government could set aside some land for release earlier than expected, depending on market conditions and demand, said Ms Alice Tan of property consultancy Knight Frank Singapore.
"With real estate needs changing rapidly along with consumer and business trends, it could make sense for land use planning to evolve more flexibly ahead of changing needs," said Ms Tan, the firm's director and head of consultancy and research.
Mr Desmond Sim, head of CBRE Research for Singapore and South-east Asia, on the other hand, believes it is still much too early to tell if the Greater Southern Waterfront project could start earlier.
"It is a huge project, and there is still a lot of elasticity in land supply today, especially at Marina Bay. So, there is no need to rush and trigger plans for the waterfront area."
That said, Mr Sim noted that both PSA and the state planners would stand to gain if the land is vacated before the lease runs out.
"This would give PSA more buffer time to sort out any teething problems and ensure the handover goes smoothly. For the state planners, getting control of the land earlier... allows them to have more flexibility with planning."
Mr Sim said the land would be best used if predominantly set aside for mixed developments. "It is a very prime piece of land, and we have to maximise the plot ratio. The last thing we need in land-scarce Singapore is for land to be zoned for use only in certain hours of the day."
The transfer of 500 staff to Pasir Panjang Terminal, which involved the port unions, is complete, said a PSA corporate spokesman.
All the workers were prepared for their new roles and a new environment at Pasir Panjang. No workers were retrenched. The cranes are gradually being dismantled as well.
The spokesman said: "With the advent of larger container ships that require deeper berths, PSA has started the process of moving our operations from our city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani to our newer facilities at Pasir Panjang, where we will operate for at least another 20 years.
"This transition is part of an overall long-term plan to consolidate container port facilities eventually at Tuas."
The port leases for the city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Brani and Keppel are due to expire in 2027. Pasir Panjang's lease runs out in 2040.
The big move to Tuas is expected to take place well before 2040.
Earmarked as the centrepiece of Singapore's Next Generation Port vision, the new Tuas mega-port will be opened progressively from 2021.
When completed by 2040, it will be able to handle up to 65 million standard containers of cargo a year, more than double what the port handled last year.