Sunday, April 10, 2011

'No en bloc, but please top up condo lease'

No en bloc, please, even if we're residents of one of Singapore's oldest condominiums.

But we'd like a lease top-up.

Residents at Arcadia, an early-generation condominium completed in 1983, feel so strongly about this that all have agreed to pay the cost of topping up the lease if the nod is given.

Mr Anand Danani, 58, who has lived for more than 20 years at Arcadia, said residents are seeking a top-up to conserve the estate - which has 66 years left on its lease - and to preserve its value.

Mr Danani, a private banker, said his family, like many others in the estate, has built precious memories and solid relationships with neighbours in this spacious estate nestled amid lush greenery in Arcadia Road. His daughter and son spent their formative years there.

Ask him if he would want a collective sale - the choice of many residents of other leasehold condos here that have reached this age - and he would tell you without missing a beat: No way.

The residents of the condo are seeking an extension of lease for their ageing estate, not for the sake of a collective sale but to conserve its three buildings on environmental and heritage grounds.

If they succeed, Arcadia will set a precedent in Singapore's history.

The condo's management committee told The Sunday Times it applied to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) last year to top up the lease back to 99 years.

This was after they worked hard to get the 100 per cent consent from residents, required by the authorities. But the application was recently rejected.

The owners are all too aware that the condo is approaching the 60-year milestone left on its lease.

In Singapore, private properties that fall below this level typically depreciate quicker in value as there is a smaller pool of interested buyers. Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board rules dictate that Singaporean and permanent resident (PR) CPF members cannot use their CPF savings to buy private homes with less than 60 years on the lease. Similarly, banks are reluctant to finance loans for buyers of such properties.

Arcadia's management committee said that in its application to SLA, it stressed its intention to conserve the estate for its architectural value.

The condo was the first building in Singapore to feature vertical landscaping, which was inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world. It was built with generous garden terraces on every level and features unusual pyramid-shaped buildings that narrow towards the top.

It was designed by local architect Chua Ka Seng of Chua Ka Seng & Partners Chartered Architects, who built in planter boxes of almost 12km in length throughout the buildings. The road it sits on, Arcadia Road, is a heritage road where trees are preserved and no development is allowed within a 10m-wide buffer.

'Arcadia epitomises the green lifestyle that the Government is encouraging and we feel that this estate deserves to be conserved, rather than let it become vulnerable to en bloc sale, which leads to demolition and further wastage of resources,' said the condo council's treasurer Edwin Khew, 62, a former nominated MP.

The Government has, in recent years, made efforts to 'green' buildings by providing incentives for owners to integrate greenery on their rooftops or walls.

Arcadia was a pioneer in such vertical landscaping and was ahead of its time, say its residents.

It was even featured - as 'one of the most dramatic green developments in Singapore' - in an exhibition 'Singapore 1:1 - Island, A Gallery of Architecture & Urban Design' by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2008.

SLA had told the residents in a letter that 'we are unable to accede to your request at this point in time. The conditions for lease extension include land use intensification and urban rejuvenation'.

When asked by The Sunday Times about its decision, a spokesman said: 'SLA declines to elaborate further because answering the questions asked would be a breach of confidentiality obligations.'

SLA added that it 'evaluates each application on its merits and in consultation with the other government agencies'.

'The specific circumstances of each development determine if a lease extension should be granted and, if so, the length of the extension.

'For residential uses, the Government may allow lease extension if it results, for example, in land use intensification and mitigation of property decay,' it said.

Arcadia residents are not giving up and intend to appeal against the decision. Mr Khew and Mr Danani are hoping Arcadia can set an example of how residents who look after their estate 'do not have to go through the wasteful process of en bloc sales'.

Property experts such as Credo Real Estate managing director Karamjit Singh said it was rare for SLA to grant a lease top-up if it was not for redevelopment or for extensive refurbishment.

Chesterton Suntec International research and consultancy director Colin Tan said: 'Topping up a lease on conservation and environmental grounds is untested... Planners generally like to keep their flexibility so they can rezone the land for other uses in the future if there's a need.'

If the residents are all willing to pay the development charge to top up the lease, and show that the buildings will be kept in line with urban renewal, then there could be a case, added Mr Tan.

If Arcadia does not get a lease top-up, it might then attract collective sale investors. It features large units, from 3,800 sq ft to 7,000 sq ft in size, that could potentially be redeveloped into smaller units.

Resident Stewart Yen, who is in his early 60s and CEO of a security business, dreads such an outcome.

'The buildings here have stood the test of time. We also have a diverse mix of people here who have gained many memories in this estate. We take pride in maintaining this as our home, and we want to keep it that way.'

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