Friday, 12 January 2007

Myth #5 - Urban Renewal

NUS Geography professors Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh have provided an apt definition of urban renewal or redevelopment:-

Urban redevelopment primarily has meant demolition of the old and construction of the new on the basis that such a program provides better employment and investment opportunities, improves living conditions, and leads to physical, social, and economic regeneration. Such an interpretation of urban redevelopment places values on 'efficient', 'rational' and 'pragmatic' use of limited land resources. .. Indeed, such an approach suggests that, in some places, urban planning becomes no more than a 'technical problem of clearance and construction' (Kong and Yeoh 2003: 46)*

They pointed out that "urban renewal generally has emphasised demolition and reconstruction rather than conservation and preservation" (2003: 78). This certainly applies to en-bloc sales, where developments are demolished and new buildings constructed, often offering either smaller units but larger quantities, or larger (and hence more expensive) units and smaller quantities (the boutique condominiums). The trend, particularly in the prime districts, is veering towards the latter. Look at Holland Hill Mansion which is going to be redeveloped into 2000 sqf units, larger than the average existing units in the area. With an estimated cost of $1500-$1800 psf, we're talking about $2.5 mill upwards per condo in the new Holland Hill development. Now how many people can afford that (or more specifically how many local citizens can do so)? The target group is obviously foreign investors who have the capital to purchase such luxury apartments.

But more worrying is the fact that a LOT of the en-bloc'ed developments are less than 20 years old. In fact, based on the en-bloc sales of 2005-2006**, the average age of the en-bloc developments, upon the first attempt at en-bloc, is about 12-15 years old.

This is not urban renewal. This is urban mutation.

This is possible courtesy of the rather arbitrary development age set by the government, of 10 years. Any development that wishes to en-bloc itself and is <> 10 yrs old, you need only achieve 80% consensus, which is what most en-blocs are aiming for nowadays. Note this is different from Selective En-bloc Restructuring Scheme which targets older HDB estates, approximately 30 odd years.

What are the consequences of this?

  • If you wish to continue staying in condos but can't afford landed properties, it would mean that you will be required to move from condo to condo, at least 3-4 times in your adult working life. Every condo is now waiting for that golden age of 10 yrs to begin the en-bloc process.
  • It means you'll have to undergo the hassle of house hunting, looking for suitable schools for your children, reestablishing social ties with the community, securing bank loans etc.
  • Given that if property market continues to be bullish, your windfall from the en-bloc sale will be able to secure you another unit NOT in the same district but further from the central parts of Singapore. This has implications for travel time and travel inconveniences.
  • You will need to encounter en-bloc madness and greedy neighbours 3-4 times.
  • It completely ridicules the notion of 'freehold' which is meant to be a property you hold for life. It makes no ownership difference if your property is 99 yrs or freehold, aside from some differences in land value.
  • Environmentally, there are huge wastage in the demolishing of all these buildings and developing new ones. Not all building materials can be recycled.
  • It means you will not recognise the place where you and your children grew up in.
Some argue that Singapore is so small, that moving around is not a problem especially considering how much profit one gains from multiple en-blocs. Yet it can cost you anything from 4-10 folds if you stay in the central districts as opposed to the outlying ones. There are issues of convenience, and yes, even prestige in staying in a small clearly demarcated part of Singapore.

Some say it's better to demolish before escalating maintenance costs make living in the development untenable. Yet, does this not speak of the poor construction quality and building materials if they can't last 10-20 years? Most apartments in central districts in Western countries are easily 50 years or more, and are surprisingly well-maintained. A well-managed management committee would have been able to take into account potential upgrades to the development in addition to maintenance, but this is obviously not happening; why upgrade when you can demolish at a profit?

Urban mutation, because mutative processes occur at a highly accelerated rate, is what is happening here in Singapore, not urban renewal.

* Kong, L. and Yeoh, B.S.A. (2003). The politics of landscape in Singapore: Constructions of 'Nation'. New York: Syracuse University Press.
** Calculated based on en-blocs from 2005-2006, age of development drawn from various websites when possible, and average age at point of initial en-bloc is approximately 70% accurate.

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