Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Marina Bay HDB estate?

Straits Times: Mon, Sep 03

HERE was a moment in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech when images from the Singapore Memory Project blended together to make the picturesque image of Marina Bay, recognisable by the recent landmark developments such as The Sail, Marina Bay Sands and Marina Bay Financial Centre.

PM Lee said: "Individually these are our life experiences; collectively they bind together to become the soul of the nation."

But I felt a disconnect.

Can "our shared future" and the "soul of the nation" be encapsulated in this image of a grandiose city centre? The famed skyline of Singapore's emerging new downtown has already won worldwide attention after being featured as the backdrop of global events like the F1 race. But can we inject the Singaporean and a slice of his soul into the downtown

area, so that it becomes more than just an exotic destination for tourist and citizen?

In a young nation like Singapore, many have accepted redevelopment as a necessity. But we lose something as the old is destroyed to make way for the new. Change to our environment is difficult to accept, because it is irretrievable. As we measure the changes against our memory, we are often left only with feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality.

By contrast, the new city rises from a clean slate. The vast and empty reclaimed land forming the Marina Bay area is not naturally a part of anybody's memory of the city. But the lack of a past is not necessarily an advantage.

Without even a past as reference, how do we begin to understand this future which all Singaporeans are supposed to identify with? If Marina Bay is to be the nation's city centre, are there ways to link this new land to a collective imagination?

The first and most obvious way is to ensure physical accessibility.

This appears to be well grasped by the Government. The intensive developments around Marina Bay will generate enormous volumes of people gravitating southwards. Partly driven by this, five major infrastructural projects - the Marina Coastal Expressway, the North-South Expressway, the Downtown Line, the Thomson Line and the Eastern Regional Line - have been planned or are in the works.

The impact of the new downtown's development is thus not contained within Marina Bay itself, but will ripple through the rest of the island via land acquisitions, razing of buildings, and road realignments required for the new infrastructure.

A second pertinent issue to consider is the diversity of land usage. Plans for the new downtown will rightly include residential and hotel use, in addition to office and commercial use. This is directed at achieving the image of a vibrant city, one that stays lively after office hours.

But if the mixed-use approach adds only hotels and small, expensive apartments, the motto "live-work-play" will be confined largely to the young single expatriate.

A living community requires other programmes. Schools will cater to parents working in the city, cutting travelling times in and out of town. Religious buildings - a mosque, a chapel, a temple - will sustain a certain soul in the city, beyond pure commerce. Different types of housing, other than the luxury real estate product, must be provided.

This brings us to a third issue: diversity of land ownership.

The strategy in place now is to sell each large plot, usually to the highest bidder, and have each developer propose the appropriate mix of uses in each site. Unsurprisingly, this will always be geared towards maximum profit. With the super-high density and large size of plots planned in the new downtown, this strategy spawns mammoth, empty shells built to attract tenants, such as banks, at high rental. This is speculative development.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, a proliferation of this mode of procurement through the entire downtown over a short span of history will generate an overly homogeneous cityscape.

So how can a city be more heterogeneous? Lower Manhattan in New York City is a prime example of how a financial district can retain soul and diversity.

At the end of Wall Street and all its frantic trading stands Trinity Church, an oasis of peace. Two public schools stand within a 10-minute walk away from the soon-to-be-completed One World Trade Center. State housing projects line the waterfront for kilometres east of the Brooklyn Bridge. The city of Manhattan comes to life with all its denizens: bankers, residents grocery-shopping, shop owners, and even children walking to school.

Singapore's old downtown too is a lively cityscape. The old Central Business District (CBD) - the complex result of a city accumulated over more than a century - is a mix of shophouses and skyscrapers, with a range of scales in between. This produces real urban energy. While the new downtown cannot mimic the old city's organic growth, it can set the conditions to support a lively and diverse community.

This can be done with a conscious decision not to allocate all downtown land via tenders for megaplots, but to set aside tracts of land for small private bodies, and to keep some valuable tracts for state uses.

By parcelling much smaller land plots along selected streets, land cost can be put within the reach of small, non-speculative organisations. This will allow home-grown small and medium- sized enterprises or even non-governmental organisations and social enterprises to own land and hold a stake in the new city centre. These varied small buildings and landowners can add a sense of permanence as well as a human scale to the city, otherwise dominated by big-capital developers.

While the planners have provided ample green spaces as relief from the overwhelming scale of the skyscrapers, small buildings in their place can do the same, while actively contributing a different energy to the city.

Another important guideline is to set aside more land in the new downtown for public use.

A start has been made with the decision to site the iconic Gardens by the Bay within the downtown area. Next could be land for schools and even sensibly priced housing, especially in the new waterfront planning areas south and east of the Gardens. After all, planners of the 1960s built Everton Park, while planners at the turn of the millennium came up with Pinnacle@Duxton. Both are Housing Board residential developments in Tanjong Pagar. Why not a Marina Bay HDB cluster, complete with market and a 21st century hawker centre with the next generation of wok masters?

Such measures will significantly alter the city's social mix. It will also anchor Singaporeans more deeply to the new downtown.

Lastly, the new downtown is planned as a seamless physical extension of the old CBD, but can it maintain a historical continuity?

New roads in Marina Bay take their alignment from existing roads such as Maxwell Road and Cross Street, but are given grand, abstract names such as Straits Boulevard and Central Boulevard. With the crossing into the vast new city being enough of an unfamiliar experience, the naming of the new roads can at least take reference from their origins in the old city. This will give a simple basis for navigation and orientation.

Besides meaningful road names, conservation of existing buildings in the radically altered zone east of Shenton Way will help link the new city to the past. This will include the Singapore Conference Hall, which Maxwell Road currently flanks, as well as Haji Muhammad Salleh Mosque, currently perched precariously next to the East Coast Parkway.

Commercial yield aside, it is crucial in today's political climate not to alienate local communities in the making of the future.

It is exciting for Singapore to finally have an extension of the historic business district. For now, it is crucial to remember that the city is not just an economic space.

It will also be the place for complex, socio-cultural interactions. The new skyline must be, to the common man, more than just the pretty backdrop to future National Day Parades, viewed from afar.

The writer is an architect in private practice.

It is exciting for Singapore to finally have an extension of the historic business district. For now, it is crucial to remember that the city is not just an economic space. It will also be the place for complex, socio-cultural interactions. The new skyline must be, to the common man, more than just the pretty backdrop to future National Day Parades, viewed from afar.

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
Email: marshe_inc@yahoo.com.sg
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G)

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