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Saving the Golden Mile

Great news for urban heritage in Singapore!

Golden Mile Complex. Credit: Darren Soh, via Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The iconic Golden Mile Complex building, with its terraced facade facing Nicoll Highway, is being proposed for conservation because of its historical and architectural significance, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said yesterday.


The decision, taken after a two-year study, starts the process to have it gazetted as a conserved building.


But to help ensure it will not inhibit a future collective sale, the URA, in an unusual move, is offering developers additional planning incentives, including a one-third increase in floor area with a waiver of part of its development charge (DC) and the option to adjust the boundary of the 1.3ha site.


In turn, developers have to abide by conservation guidelines.


Most importantly, they have to retain the development’s landmark main building that is famed for its signature stepped terraces atop the podium facing Nicoll Highway.


Other key features that have to be kept include the stepped building profile and plinth-like podium on the side facing Beach Road.


The URA, however, assured builders that it is open to considering creative design ideas that respect the architectural and structural character of the building.


The decision to conserve the 47-year-old complex comes after two unsuccessful collective sale attempts, both times with the same price tag of $800 million.


Both tenders closed with no bids.


To enhance its appeal, the URA is offering major incentives, including letting the development have an increased total gross plot ratio of 5.6 for the site. This one-third increase in floor area is the equivalent of an additional 30-storey tower.


It will sit on the site of an existing multi-storey carpark adjacent to the main building.


Part of the DC for the extra floor area will be waived but capped at 10 per cent of the market value of the entire development, or 10 per cent of the estimated land value, based on the DC rate in last month’s revision, depending on the approved mix of use for the development, whichever is lower, the URA said.


Developers will also be given the option to adjust the site boundary to have a more regular-shaped site for an optimal layout of the new tower.


These incentives come on top of the typical planning incentives for conserved buildings, in which DCs are waived for enhancement in value arising from a change of site use and a lease top-up to 99 years.


More than 7,200 buildings in Singapore have been conserved, many of which are in historical districts such as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam.


The decision to conserve the strata-titled Golden Mile Complex comes after feedback gathered over two years by the URA from stakeholders, heritage groups and industry players.


The 718-unit, 16-storey property in Beach Road was zoned for commercial use in the URA Master Plan 2014. It was completed in 1973 and has about 48 years left on its lease.


It was one of the first developments here to feature offices, shops and residences.


When it finds a developer in a collective sale, the complex will be Singapore’s first large-scale strata-titled conserved property to be sold.


Three pioneer architects from home-grown Design Partnership, now DP Architects, designed it - Mr Gan Eng Oon, Mr William Lim and Mr Tay Kheng Soon.


Yesterday, Mr Tay, 80, told The Straits Times he is pleased the complex is to be conserved.


“I am happy not just for my building, but for the period of history that the building represents - the youthful, bold attitude we had at that time at the beginning of our nation building,” he added.


Developers, heritage group cheer move


The heritage community and property developers cheered yesterday’s move to pave the way for the iconic Golden Mile Complex to be conserved, saying that it is a win-win for both of them.


The reason is the Urban Redevelopment Authority has coupled the proposed conservation with additional planning incentives to attract developers in a future collective sale.


Dr Yeo Kang Shua, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Singapore, said it is an unprecedented move by the Government to take the first step to propose conservation for a large building that is not state-owned.


“To me, it signals the Government is starting to look at what makes up our uniquely post-independence Singaporean identity and history,” he said.


Dr Yeo noted that modern buildings like Golden Mile Complex, which was completed in 1973, are the most vulnerable to demolition as they are sometimes not deemed worthy of conservation owing to their relatively young age.


“They are too close to us in terms of age to be associated with heritage, so people don’t hesitate to demolish them.


“But this move may now help re-evaluate the historical and architectural merit of modern buildings,” he said.


Real estate consultancy firm Showsuite’s chief executive Karamjit Singh said offering additional planning incentives is a pragmatic strategy to entice developers.


“Because of the fragmented ownership, the incentives need to be calibrated to make its en bloc sale viable for both building owners and developer. From the buyer’s perspective, refurbishing an old building tends to be more cumbersome than building afresh and unconstrained,” he said.


Mr Desmond Sim of CBRE said: “From a planning perspective, if sold, this could also spearhead the rejuvenation efforts in the Beach Road area, which is in line with the Government’s vision to revitalise the area.”


***

An artist's impression of Golden Mile Complex in 1970, when it was under construction. Credit: Singapore Press Holdings.
The 1970s, when Kallang Basin was still used for shipping. Credit: Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Previously, I had resigned myself to the reality that Golden Mile Complex would face the wrecking ball, because it was not government-owned, and it seemed too much of a mountain to climb in terms of balancing conservation and the desire of its owners to make as much money as they could out of it (who wouldn’t?).


But sometimes, surprises emerge from the most unexpected of places!


In a Channel NewsAsia article, URA praised the building for its “historical and architectural significance”, its structural ambition, and the skilled construction methods needed to build its “‘terraced’ floor slabs, slanted beams, towering columns and ‘floating’ staggered staircases”.

Credit: Darren Soh, via Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Cross-section of Golden Mile Complex. Credit: Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Said URA: “Golden Mile Complex attracted a live-in population and visitors for recreation, as well as catalysed new developments along the Beach Road area.


“The building continues to be a distinctive landmark and symbol of Singaporeans’ collective memories and the ‘can-do spirit’ of our pioneer generation during the post-independence years.”


More on URA’s report on Golden Mile Complex here.


Allowing the owners of the site to demolish its multi-storey car park and construct a far taller tower is a good compromise. It would literally tower above the original 16-storey structure, but that’s still far better than the complete disappearance of the iconic building.

Base picture credit: Google Maps.

Hopefully, this will be a precedent for similar compromises to be made for other post-independence buildings over which question marks lie.


Here are some buildings I wish to see conserved too:


North of the Singapore River


1. Bras Basah Complex, completed 1980

Base picture credit: Google Maps.

Known for its mom-and-pop shops selling books, stationery, and art and craft materials.


2. Albert Centre, completed 1980s

Base picture credit: Google Maps.

Its hawker centre has good, cheap food.


South of the Singapore River


3. People’s Park Complex, completed 1973; and 4. People’s Park Centre, completed 1976

Base picture credit: Google Maps.
People's Park Complex. Credit: Khoo Guo Jie.

Time is ticking for these two buildings - their owners are keen to sell and redevelop them, similar to what was happening to Golden Mile Complex.


In terms of the communities they serve, and their imposing presence in the area, Eu Tong Sen Street / New Bridge Road wouldn’t be the same without them.


5. Chinatown Complex, completed 1981 as Kreta Ayer Complex

Base picture credit: Google Maps.
Credit: Ghetto Singapore.

Said to be the heart of Chinatown. Again, its hawker centre has good, cheap food.


There’s reason to hope again!