Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

June 4, 2008

Remaking Jurong: From ulu town to romantic lake district

Filed under: Commercial,General — Propertymarketupdates @ 4:45 am

Can Jurong with its uncool industrial image be transformed into a romantic lake district that is also rich in jobs? Lee Siew Hua meets the zestful planners behind the new Jurong Lake District and looks at the prospects of success for Singapore’s next mini-metropolis

THE Jurong Lake District planners were lamenting to each other that the lakefront appeared so near, yet is so far.

Jurong Lake was integral to their radical plan to transform Jurong, with its colourless factory-town image, into Singapore’s only lush lakeside destination for business and leisure.

But it was a plodding 750m away from the heart of activity.

Four words, however, got around the problem.

‘Bring the lake closer’, architect Fun Siew Leng said in an SMS to her team members.

The intriguing words were to spark an idea that has become a much talked-about feature in Singapore’s newest plan to redevelop and rebrand Jurong, an icon in the country’s post-independent history.

Jurong, a swampland turned into industrial town, is to be given a new sinuous waterway, carved to wrap around a to-be-built Lakeside Village that will be dotted with boutique hotels and cafes.

This think-out-of-the-box episode is just one of several sparkling instances that lit the one-year journey taken by a dozen planners and architects at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to bring fresh life and vibrancy to a sleepy hollow.

But at the heart of their plan is the lake, reflected in its brand new name: Jurong Lake District.

Unveiled early last month by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, the vision will evolve over 10 to 15 years to a mini-metropolis for Singaporeans to live, work and play.

But as it evolves, what are the constraints and assets of the district that the planners have to deal with? What are its chances of success?

Will Jurong be a showpiece or will residents enjoy tangible benefits?

And no less intriguing is the behind-the-scenes work: how did the planners channel their labour and imagination?

Early triumphs

WHATEVER the future, the present, at least, is promising – the project began on a strong note.

One, the URA convinced the Singapore Science Centre to stay. A well-known landmark, the centre was planning to pull up its roots and move elsewhere.

It will now get a new home on the waterfront, and be within easy reach of the Chinese Garden MRT station. Its learning activities can also be taken outdoors to the lakeside.

‘We had to hardsell the idea,” Mrs Koh-Lim Wen Gin tells Insight. Leader of the team responsible for the big picture and the vision, she is the URA’s chief planner and deputy chief executive officer (physical planning and conservation and urban design).

The centre was vital as the team had envisioned it anchoring a cluster of four or five edutainment centres.

‘Many Singaporeans also grew up with the Science Centre when young,” points out Ms Fun, the spirited director of urban planning and design who sent out the SMS.

Second, as the URA team tells it, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was looking for the next big thing after the Integrated Resorts (IRs).

Says Mrs Koh-Lim: ‘We helped identify Jurong Lake as a major tourism cluster that will support edutainment uses for the family.”

Third triumph: The Land Transport Authority plans to improve the Jurong East MRT station and bus interchange to serve a growing population.

The future science centre, the quest for a new buzz after the IRs and the uplifting of transport created a ‘confluence of opportunity”, says Mrs Koh-Lim.

To make the most of these possibilities, the team went onsite to size up the strengths and weaknesses of Jurong.

They tramped all over the 360ha site on foot, sometimes taking their families, and at different hours of the day to observe the changing light.

Up the Chinese Garden pagoda they went for a higher perspective. And aerial pictures were snapped from a helicopter.

Facing constraints

AS THEY worked and consulted with 100 developers, professionals and advisers, two big constraints became evident: image and distance.

Indeed, the image was so ulu that the team wondered if the name ‘Jurong’ should be abandoned.

But feedback from their consultations was a clear ‘no’.

‘Jurong is a brand known locally and internationally,” says Mrs Koh-Lim.

Foreign executives knew Jurong and companies across the world had set up shop since the early days of industrialisation in the 60s. Homely factories churned out hair cream and joss-sticks then. But now, electronics and high-tech industries prevail.

Since Jurong had an identity, its image needed a strategic tweak, not dumping.

For that, the planners roamed the world, figuratively. They loved England’s scenic Lake District, which is linked with the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Inspiring too was Hangzhou’s West Lake, whose beauty is celebrated in Chinese classics, poetry and paintings. Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo once compared the West Lake to Xi Zi, a famous beauty in ancient China.

And, of course, Jurong too is in the west of Singapore.

In the buzz of brainstorming, the team cleverly tied the ‘lake district’ concept to Jurong.

Settling on the new name was one breakthrough for the image exercise.

The perception that Jurong is far and isolated, the team felt, was wrong. They tried taking the train and car into Jurong from the city – and zoomed in within 20 to 25 minutes, a swift pace that surprised even themselves.

In future, attractions like the future Singapore Science Centre will be clustered closer to the water or to the three MRT stations that serve the area.

Besides image and distance, is air quality an issue?

Mr Lim Eng Hwee, URA director (physical planning), says the lake district is encircled by homes.

Although there are some industries about 600m northeast of the district, in Toh Guan and Bukit Batok, they are ‘mainly clean and light industries”, he adds.

Heavier industries are more than 5km away in Jurong Island, and in Tuas which is more than 10km away.

The air quality in the western part of Singapore is safe, he says, based on monitoring by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Meanwhile, the failed Tang Dynasty Village theme park and dispirited landmarks like the Chinese Garden are reminders that success is not always easy in Jurong.

The $100-million Tang Dynasty Village was built in 1991. It was shuttered in 1999 when it failed to attract enough visitors.

The 12ha attraction will be torn down by next year.

What’s next?

Mr Lim, the director of physical planning, says: ‘The site will be reconfigured and released for a new development concept.” Investors will have flexible use of the waterfront site.

Chances of success

ON THE probability of success, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, president of the Jurong Country Club and former MP for Ayer Rajah says: ‘Jurong is no longer boring and ulu.”

More importantly, the lake district and its west coast environs has a population base of one million people, he notes. The critical mass is there, and improved transport will bring in visitors.

He knows Jurong intimately and is near-poetic as he thinks about its underplayed appeal. ‘It’s a beautiful town, especially around Jurong Lake. It’s a jewel,” he says.

‘Jurong Island is like a Cinderella City, all lit up at night. The new Lakeside Village will be like Clarke Quay.”

So optimistic is Dr Tan that even before he knew of the Jurong Lake District blueprint, he was planning to build a hotel within the golf club.

It will possibly be a four-star hotel of 200 to 300 rooms, for foreign executives who fly in to work in the industries or petrochemical complex on Jurong Island.

The hotel idea was prompted by visitors frequently dropping in at the club to ask if it has rooms, says Dr Tan.

The URA and MPs interviewed say that what is new this time is that the area has been planned ‘holistically”.

Says Mr Lim, the URA director: ‘It merges the strengths of a new regional centre comprising some 750,000 sq m of commercial space, with the beautiful greenery of Jurong Lake.’

Also, Singapore needs to introduce new tourist attractions to build on the momentum of the IRs, Singapore Flyer and new events like the Formula One race, he adds.

The lake district is a candidate with its buzz and brand-new image, he reckons

Jurong GRC MP Grace Fu says her residents are excited about the overhaul. ‘The commercial development around Jurong East MRT will bring more jobs and economic opportunities to the area.’

Adds Mrs Fu, also the Senior Minister of State for National Development: ‘The hotels and family resorts will also give that added touch of vibrancy and glamour.”

Desirable homes

HER fellow MP in Jurong, Dr Ong Chit Chung, also cites jobs and adds: ‘Residents can easily access attractions from their doorstep. People from neighbouring areas such as Hong Kah, Bukit Batok and Jurong West will visit by MRT.

‘Housing along the lake will be very desirable.”

The plan to transform Jurong is anchored in the bigger story of the URA’s drive to spread business and jobs beyond the city, and to grow the national economy.

At another level of detail, the plans for Jurong mesh with URA ideals to deepen identity and to proliferate parks and water features island-wide.

This future Jurong is a world apart from the days when the swampland was dubbed ‘Goh’s Folly”.

In the early 1960s, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s economic architect, flagged his idea of creating a prime industrial estate there.

Mr Ngiam Tong Dow observes with a smile: ‘Goh’s Folly is now Goh’s Blessing.’ The pioneer policymaker was designated the Estate Officer for Jurong in the 1960s, when he worked at the Economic Development Board.

In a sense, the lake district is a fulfilment – and refinement – of Dr Goh’s vision.

Its eco-city aspects, lush greenery and natural beauty now and in future have their roots in Dr Goh’s concepts.

Mr Ngiam says even in those austere days, Dr Goh had an eye for the environment. ‘He said Jurong is an industrial city and the skies will be grey all day long. He said we ought to have a spot or little oasis where the workers can go out and look at the birds.

‘And that’s how the Jurong Bird Park started.’

So Jurong has its charms too.

Mrs Fu says residents have an affection for ‘Yuhua’ – the name of the Chinese Garden in Mandarin and also the name of her Yuhua ward.

It is the ’softer appeal’ of Jurong that moves her. She highlights her friendly, down-to-earth residents, and the hours she spent ice-skating at Fuji Ice Palace with her children.

The hope is that a thousand such little, familiar emblems of Old Jurong will not change too much during the revamp.

Place to live, work, play

The plan is to make the Jurong Lake District a desirable address, a global workplace rich in jobs, and a new playground in the west.

It will be a place to live, work and play.

The new appeal will be anchored in a bundle of ideas, such as:

Maximising Jurong Lake: A new waterway will be carved out, bringing the serene water closer to the future Jurong Gateway, the commercial heart.

A third garden-island will be created. It will house an intimate ‘village’ of boutique hotels and places to chill out.

New Singapore Science Centre and family fun: The Science Centre will move to the lakefront, expand and bring learning outdoors. It anchors other edutainment centres for families.

Jurong Gateway jobs and more: Singapore’s biggest commercial hub outside the city will bring jobs to the doorsteps of residents. Located around the Jurong East MRT station – which has open land – it will have a mix of office, retail, residential, hotel, entertainment, and food and beverage uses.

Lush greenery: The sense of being close to nature will be heightened with landscaped gardens, park connectors, green elevated walkways and sky-gardens on buildings. It is an eco-city in itself.

Image overhaul: It is a move from grey to gracious. The area will morph from being the birthplace of Singapore’s industrialisation and a symbol of survival to a distinctive place with global and local appeal.

More appeal is ahead. An Urban Redevelopment Authority official says the lake district will also be a test-bed for ‘fun technology’ but was not ready to disclose details.

Source : Straits Times – 10 May 2008

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