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Journey to the west and its lakefront CBD

Does Jurong have what it takes to become a second business hub, or will it cannibalise the current one down south?

Some 20 years from now, Jurong in Singapore's west will be a futuristic town with a buzz to rival the established central business district (CBD) down south. Or so the dream goes, according to a draft masterplan for the new Jurong Lake District (JLD) which was unveiled last month.

The 360ha area, to be completed from 2040 onwards, will be the well from which 100,000 new jobs and 20,000 new homes will spring. It will also boast waterfront retail options by Jurong Lake and access to multiple MRT stations.

Its proximity to the upcoming High Speed Rail terminus to be completed in 2026, connecting Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, is expected to open the district's access to a market of 10 million.

And the hope is that it will also be a smart, eco-friendly district - with district cooling systems and a common services tunnel among some of the measures to save energy and minimise disruption to its future residents.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, in unveiling the draft masterplan, said the district would be the "catalyst for Singapore's next phase of economic transformation", in the same way that Jurong Industrial Estate kick-started the manufacturing sector more than 50 years ago.

But already, some have raised questions about the ambitious plan to transform an area currently known more for its industrial links into a bustling second business hub: Does Singapore need another CBD, and will it work?

TOO SMALL?

Some property analysts are concerned that Singapore may be too small to sustain multiple hubs.

Besides the current CBD, there are three regional centres: Tampines for which planning began in 1992, Jurong in 2008 and Woodlands in 2014. A fourth, Seletar, is in the works.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Such regional centres - about 15 times the size of a normal town centre - were mooted in the 1991 Concept Plan as part of a decentralisation strategy to support Singapore's growth. In addition, the authorities have also earmarked other hubs, like the 200ha research and business park one-north in Buona Vista.

But Jurong, already a regional centre, will now be elevated to a second CBD - prompting fears about excess supply of office space.

Projections by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for 100,000 new jobs translates to about 9 million sq ft of office space, which is more than five times the current stock in Jurong, said Cushman & Wakefield research director Christine Li. The additional space would be about one-eighth of the existing 80 million sq ft of office space available.

Given Singapore's small economy and its lack of hinterland, "some level of cannibalisation of demand from the current CBD cannot be ruled out", especially by businesses which do not need to be in the central area, said JLL research and consultancy head Tay Huey Ying.

For example, maritime services firms might prefer JLD to the current CBD, given the planned relocation of Singapore's ports to Tuas. And other companies which have frequent or large dealings with these companies could follow suit, she said.

Another concern is that it will be a tough balancing act for the Government to juggle multiple development projects across the various nodes. Analysts agree that the JLD must be positioned differently from the current CBD to stand a chance of success.

For now, it helps that the two CBDs have different value propositions. The existing CBD remains the financial heartbeat of the nation, while the new one aims to be a hub for companies in the maritime services (especially with the planned relocation of the ports to Tuas), energy, IT, infrastructure and the built environment.

But Ms Tay argues that a "more concentrated effort" will be needed to ensure the success of the JLD as a business district outside the CBD. That includes financial tugs such as an office rental gap of at least 60 per cent, up from the current 34 per cent, she said, as is the case in Hong Kong where the up-and-coming Kowloon East is across the Victoria Harbour from the existing CBD in Central.

One way to do this is to slow down the release of land parcels to be used for office space in the CBD, while at the same time ramping up the supply outside it, she said.

"Doing so can help to focus developers' attention on the area. This will accelerate the building of a critical mass of supporting businesses and amenities, as well as live-in population - an important business locational criteria," she said. The URA has said that at least 40 per cent of the area surrounding the upcoming High Speed Rail terminus will be for residential purposes.

Another way to ensure that the JLD is complementary to the existing CBD is to make buildings more "campus-like, with more blurred lines between offices and other components such as logistics, retail, residential or even institutions", said Ms Li.

For example, driverless cars may not need to be restricted to roads alone but could ply specific buildings, and parks could be situated side-by-side with offices, she suggested.

But this would mean that the current way of tendering out land parcels based on price is unlikely to work, she added, as "commercial landlords would want to maximise profit by going for the highest price, rather than creating a sustainable eco-system to support jobs and growth".

In response to a query from The Straits Times, a spokesman for URA - the agency overseeing the development of the district - said the Government is studying the possibility of selling bigger plots of land within the next few years.

But the range and gross floor area quantum of use allowed on each site, and whether they will be sold to a master developer, will only be determined later, after the agency has reviewed public feedback, she added.

LEARNING FROM OTHERS

The idea of second CBDs is certainly not unique to Singapore.

Successful ones such as Parramatta in Sydney, London's Canary Wharf and Pudong in Shanghai took time to get off the ground. For example, "better a bed in Puxi than a house in Pudong" used to be a common refrain, no thanks to the latter's poor infrastructure. But after more than two decades of development, the district is highly sought after, with office rental rates set to surpass Puxi in time.

This in turn will spark redevelopment in Puxi, something which Singapore ought to prepare for in its current CBD, according to Dr Steven Choo, the chairman of real estate advisory firm Vestasia Group.

"The JLD will grow, and the current CBD will grow too - it's not a question of one over the other," he said, pointing to developments in the "new downtown" area of Marina Bay as an example of rejuvenation.

Ms Li noted that planning for regional centres can be tricky due to changing lifestyle and real estate needs, citing brick and mortar shops as an example of something that is no longer as relevant - especially to millennials - compared with five years ago. But this is where the JLD's white zoning comes in, as it allows a range of building types, from residential to commercial.

"We cannot fully anticipate the type of demand that will come in over the decades, but we must be able to adjust and be flexible" said Dr Choo of the ambitious target. "It's scary if we don't get it right, but it'll be scarier if we don't plan for it."

TRANSFORMING THE DISTRICT

As plans shape up, the JLD must evolve with the needs of the times.

International Property Advisory chief executive Ku Swee Yong hopes to see more integration between the URA-helmed JLD and the Jurong Industrial District (JID), an upcoming industrial park that aims to bring together researchers, students, innovators and businesses and spearheaded by national developer of industrial infrastructure JTC. The URA will "work closely with the economic agencies to create synergies between JLD and JID", its spokesman said.

Similarly, Ms Li would like to see future office buildings in the district adopt a more open, campus-like layout where smart mobility devices can easily be used. "We could possibly see the likes of an Airbnb or Facebook campus springing up in the vicinity, given the close proximity of the district to the tertiary institutions," she said.

Having a car-lite, smart city is also essential to the success of the future JLD. Planners have already targeted that eight in 10 rides in the district will be made using public transport, and have set aside buses-only lanes and carpark hubs to reduce the availability of nearby carpark spots.

They have also proposed an off-site centre for trucks to consolidate their deliveries, to minimise heavy traffic in the area.

One of the reasons Tampines took so long to blossom into a successful regional centre was traffic congestion as people made their way from their homes to the east, said Dr Choo. But today, besides the existing East-West MRT line, it is served by an improved bus network and will enjoy even greater access with the completion of Phase 3 of the Downtown Line later this year.

JLD's advantage is that being partly a greenfield site, planners are providing for well-connected transport infrastructure from the start. Other helpful developments would be a range of landed and low-rise condominiums with smart elements and waterfront views as their selling points.

Said Ms Li: "This may give rise to a more affordable 'Sentosa Cove in the suburbs'." Over the longer term, the diversity of commercial activities and housing options could help to underpin demand for residential housing, she added.

It is perhaps heartening that despite concerns, the outlook is still bright - which Mr Wong seemed to hint was a recurring cycle whenever any major infrastructure upheaval plan was announced.

The minister had said: "(W)e are not building for the sake of building; neither are we going for the biggest, fanciest or tallest buildings. Rather, we are building infrastructure, to attract more investments into Singapore, and to create more good jobs for Singaporeans."

Citing the unpopular Population White Paper in 2013 which had projected a population of 6.9 million people by 2030, Dr Choo said the job of planners is to ensure sufficient space and growth areas for the generations to come.

"The reality is that our population doesn't stop growing after 2030," he said. "If you ask me whether we need the JLD - my answer is an unequivocal yes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2017, with the headline 'Journey to the west and its lakefront CBD'. Print Edition | Subscribe