Thumbs up for idea of car-free Dhoby Ghaut area

The Land Transport Authority said it is exploring the pedestrianisation of a section of Dhoby Ghaut, and further study is required before finalising the details.
The Land Transport Authority said it is exploring the pedestrianisation of a section of Dhoby Ghaut, and further study is required before finalising the details.ST PHOTO: SAHIBA CHAWDHARY

But observers, stakeholders say landlords and retailers key to success of rejuvenation efforts

A 500m stretch of Orchard Road may be shut to traffic permanently as part of plans to rejuvenate the street and turn the Dhoby Ghaut area into a green oasis.

This was among the ideas proposed by government agencies on Wednesday to make Singapore's premier shopping belt more than a retail destination.

Observers and stakeholders said that while the proposal to shut part of a major thoroughfare may cause traffic issues, the pay-off could be worth it. Property owners and mall developers, however, hold the key to the success or failure of the rejuvenation efforts, they added.

The Land Transport Authority said it is exploring the pedestrianisation of a section of Dhoby Ghaut, and further study is required before finalising the details.

The proposed road closure would involve the stretch between Buyong and Handy roads, or the Istana and the junction before The Cathay.

Nanyang Technological University senior research fellow Gopinath Menon said traffic would be affected, but its effects would be manageable as the section proposed for pedestrianisation does not affect access to buildings in the area such as Plaza Singapura.

Turning the opposite street, Penang Road, into a two-way road and diverting traffic there can work, though he said that a lane should remain open to buses as "having these huge buses make turns becomes very messy".

"There will be some initial unhappiness but, after a few days, things will adjust - traffic finds its own way," said Mr Menon.

Mr Bernie Tay, co-owner of burger chain Fatboy's The Burger Bar, which has a street-facing outlet at MacDonald House, said: "As a retailer in the area, I think it is a fantastic idea."

  • Past efforts at rejuvenation

  • 1989: A stretch of Orchard Road was closed off to traffic one Sunday a month for bazaars and carnivals, but the closures ended in 1992 after public interest waned. 

    2004: The Urban Redevelopment Authority provided incentives to building owners to build underground walkways. But developers were largely not enticed, citing high costs, among other concerns. 

    2007: A tie-up between the Singapore Tourism Board and Orchard Road Business Association to encourage late-night shopping saw some malls and retailers open until 11pm on the last Friday of the month. It ended three years later amid declining participation.

    2009: A $40 million facelift involved the widening of pavements in front of Ion Orchard, Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City and other improvements to the street. 

    2014: A monthly pedestrian night saw the stretch between Scotts and Bideford roads closed to traffic from 6pm to 11pm. It ended in 2016 as the costs were unsustainable and it did little to boost retail sales. 

    2017: Plans were announced to revitalise Orchard Road, including the possibility of reclaiming a lane of traffic to expand pedestrian spaces, the use of state land for ad hoc events and the building of a permanent structure to showcase local designers. The Grange Road open-air carpark has been used for several events, while Design Orchard opened last week. 

    2017: A Shibuya-style scramble crossing was trialled at the junction of Cairnhill and Orchard roads, allowing pedestrians to cross the road diagonally. The month-long trial took place on weekends and public holidays from December, but was not continued.

    A previous six-month trial at the Bideford-Orchard junction took place 11 years earlier, producing similar results.

"There are already existing green spaces though, and no one goes there. Unless they create a lot of amenities and attractions for people to go to, it will be one big empty park," he added.

Among the confirmed plans for the 2.4km Orchard Road is having different offerings between the Tanglin, Somerset, Orchard and Dhoby Ghaut areas.

But stakeholders have said that landlords and retailers must play their part in the transformation inside the malls.

The Singapore Retail Association (SRA) said it agrees that more than infrastructure improvements are needed. This year's Great Singapore Sale, which it organises, will be revamped and promote local designers and talents, said SRA president R. Dhinakaran.

A leading retailer with dozens of shops in Orchard Road who declined to be named said that while malls must be willing to compromise on rental income to support lifestyle offerings from young entrepreneurs, there may be roadblocks as most malls on the shopping belt are under real estate investment trusts, which are driven to maximise profits.

 
 

Orchard Road developers and mall managers were mostly mum on their plans to participate in rejuvenation efforts or align their tenant mixes with the themes of the sub-precincts. Wisma Atria, Ngee Ann City, The Centrepoint, Tanglin Mall, The Cathay and the Cathay Cineleisure Orchard mall, 313@Somerset and Plaza Singapura declined to comment or did not respond by press time.

Far East Organization's chief operating officer for its retail business group Mavis Seow said that its Orchard Central mall already caters to the younger crowd in the area, while Orchard Turn Developments said that Ion Orchard is working closely with associations and government organisations.

Orchard Road saw some 7.3 million tourist visits in 2017, up from 6.4 million in 2013.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2019, with the headline 'Thumbs up for idea of car-free Dhoby Ghaut area'. Print Edition | Subscribe