Monday, 18 December 2017

Jurong Lake District: From the boondocks to boom town - and beyond

Singapore has thrived by betting big on future trends that make or break economies, whether in air or sea transport, urban development or water sustainability. It is how the Republic rose to become the world's top transshipment hub, a leading air hub and a model liveable city. In the last of a three-part series on major infrastructure projects, Insight looks at plans to transform Jurong into Singapore's second Central Business District.
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Sunday Times, 17 Dec 2017

A decade ago, the idea that the industrial - some might even say boring - town of Jurong would one day be transformed into a vibrant business district with pockets of tranquillity was often met with incredulity by developers and residents alike.

Yet today, long-time Jurong East resident Aimee Saw, 62, can point to an accelerated momentum in the Government's efforts to not just revitalise the area, but also to turn it into Jurong Lake District (JLD), the nation's second Central Business District.

The retired secretary says: "In the 60s and 70s, there wasn't much here besides factories and a few shops.

"But suddenly, in the last 10 years, you have so many new shopping centres and a big hospital, and people say there will be more to come. It's good to know Jurong is not forgotten."

In 2008, the Government unveiled a blueprint to turn JLD - a 360ha area comprising Jurong Lake and the area around Jurong East MRT station, where the Jurong Country Club was - into a lakeside destination for business and leisure over 10 to 15 years.

Almost a decade later, the Urban Redevelopment Authority launched a draft masterplan in August this year, ambitious in its promises to elevate the district to a second CBD, as well as a sought-after living destination.



The goal is to provide more than 100,000 new jobs in sectors such as maritime, infrastructure and technology, as well as a further 20,000 homes.

Given the monumental effort that lies ahead to achieve this, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has cautioned that JLD will be realised only in 2040 and beyond.

Insight takes a look at the plans.

JURONG'S TURN IN THE SUN

In many ways, JLD is the west's chance to shine.

The south is where the river is, with the current CBD and all its glamour as a financial hub.

In the east, Changi Airport is a major gateway and aviation hub.

The north has long had the Causeway, and will also welcome the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System in 2024.

But for several decades, the west, while home to over a million people, has been in the shadow of the other districts. This had to do in large part with its blue-collar image, being situated amid factories.

Jurong became Singapore's first industrial town in 1961, around when the newly elected People's Action Party was trying to combat an unemployment rate of 14 per cent.

Entrepot trade and related services like banking were not as stable as hoped. Then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee believed industrialisation and entrepreneurship were the way to go.

He began with Jurong, clearing swampland to build factories.

The high cost of the massive undertaking, as well as Singapore's lack of track record in manufacturing, led some to label the effort "Goh's Folly".

Even in 1963, when the industrial estate was ready, investors were wary. Tax incentives and the promise of conducive labour relations were offered, however, and Jurong got its first major company, the National Iron and Steel Mills, in 1964.

Still, Jurong's remoteness and lack of amenities were turn-offs.

In 1968, the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) Bill was passed, giving JTC full rein in developing infrastructure in Jurong New Town.

This led to the introduction of social amenities in estates like Taman Jurong, improvements in bus services and medical facilities, as well as a 283ha public park named Chinese Garden, or Jurong Gardens.

And so the people came, but it was hard to shake off Jurong's association with the boondocks.

Three decades later, it was declared a regional centre as part of a move to encourage more jobs outside the city, with the International Business Park and JTC Summit among the first developments.

But it was not until the 2008 masterplan that people began taking Jurong more seriously.

In the last five years alone, four new malls have sprung up - JCube, Jem, Westgate and Big Box.

Previously, there was just outlet mall IMM.

As URA chief executive Lim Eng Hwee puts it: "Singapore is an island city and we cannot look inwards… All four regions have to be anchored on the idea of being an international gateway or global hub."

WHAT THE JLD HAS

There is finally a confluence of factors that will propel the district into being a second CBD.

For one, with more than a million people living in the west, there is a ready talent pool. Research shows that as many as 70 per cent of those who live in central areas such as Queenstown work in the current CBD. This means that businesses which establish themselves in Jurong can tap a workforce that is already there.

It is also situated in the middle of a "tech corridor", starting with business park one-north in Buona Vista, the National University of Singapore, the JLD, the upcoming Jurong Innovation District - spearheaded by statutory board JTC Corporation - and Nanyang Technological University in Jurong West.

Being close to think-tanks and major industry players means there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration with different talents, says Mr Lim.

Helping to accelerate JLD's transition into a future top-tier destination are firmer plans about two vital components of infrastructure: the Tuas mega port and the High Speed Rail (HSR) terminus.

First announced by then Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in 2012, the mega port will consolidate all of Singapore's port operations in Tuas. The first berths are expected to be operational in 2021.

Meanwhile, the HSR, which connects Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, opens up Singapore to tap a market more than 10 million strong.

The terminus, expected to be ready in 2026, will sit at the heart of the JLD.

Mr Lim notes: "With that population size, the market allows you to do many things."

And he points to a market beyond Malaysia too. "Eventually, the HSR will be plugged into the rail network in Asia. An analyst told me that the HSR terminus can be seen as the end point of the Belt and Road Initiative," he says, referring to China's game plan to connect Asian and European countries for economic growth.

He adds: "For now, the JLD becomes the gateway to Malaysia. But it will also be the gateway to ASEAN and the rest of Asia.

"So physically and symbolically, it's important for countries that have business in the region to have their headquarters at the end point of that network.

"It's going to be an important selling point."


PLANNING PARAMETERS

While the JLD will take several decades to fully come to fruition, the planning authority is aware that things can change quickly - be it in technology or the industries that propel an economy.

So it is ensuring there is flexibility to enable developers to adapt to unpredictable market conditions.

For starters, it has zoned the district a "white" site, which will give developers the freedom to erect a range of building types, from residential to commercial.

"This is going to be very different from the downtown CBD," says Mr Lim.

"You won't see pure offices or pure residences. You might see an office with a hotel and shops and residences all in one complex. We don't want the area to be pitch dark after seven, but lively 24/7."

The URA is also studying plans to sell large parcels of land to master developers, so that they are able to configure a site and adapt to various demands over time.

"For the first phase, you'd want some critical mass and good connectivity - a master developer makes sense," says Mr Lim.

"That's not to say the whole JLD will have one master developer, but we will do so one at a time and see whether it continues to make sense as we go forward."

While he could not share a more definite timeline about when to expect key JLD milestones, citing the uncertainty of market conditions, Mr Lim reiterated that if there were any priorities, "we would want to get the developments around the HSR up first".

"If we are serious (about the JLD), in the next couple of years, we have to start to do something," he says, acknowledging that tenders for land parcels could be out in the next two to three years.

UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS

Much has been said about the JLD's capacity to add about nine million sq ft of office space - more than five times the current stock in Jurong, and about one-eighth of the existing 80 million sq ft of office space available.

But a major plus is the district's abundance of "green and blue spaces", in the form of parks and expanded lakes.

About 16ha of new parks and open spaces will be added, bringing the total to over 100ha.

Some of this will be in the form of a large central park above the HSR terminus, and a lot more greenery will be integrated into building surfaces, or what the URA has called a "green carpet".

"The green will be very visible, and it will be the most intensive vertical greenery you will see. Visually, it will be a different feel when you come here," says Mr Lim.

He adds that the Government is also studying how to introduce water elements into the green corridor.

A new waterway will also be formed, creating a third island on Jurong Lake to add new waterfront spaces for recreational and community activities.

"The 'third Botanic Gardens' that NParks is building in JLD will give the western region a much-needed open space - the east has East Coast Park and the downtown area has two Botanic Gardens (the other being Gardens by the Bay)," he says. "The west doesn't have anything that's significant yet, and residents will look forward to this."

Another key feature is its car-lite strategy, where planners are targeting eight in 10 rides in the district to be made using public transport, and have set aside buses-only lanes and carpark hubs to reduce the availability of nearby carpark spots.

This is higher than the current public transport mode share of 66 per cent across Singapore, as well as the 2020 target of 70 per cent.

They have also proposed an off-site centre for trucks to consolidate their deliveries to minimise heavy traffic in the area, critical for an area plagued by heavy congestion.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

However, some observers are concerned that Singapore may be biting off more than it can chew.

The research head of consultancy Savills Singapore, Mr Alan Cheong, argues that JLD is "dependent on so many moving parts" that it risks never taking off.

For example, the completion of the HSR may be delayed, and it is unclear whether foreign developers or companies can be persuaded to take a risk in Jurong instead of the current CBD.

This may have a knock-on effect on the economic sustainability of a district predicated on such a long runway, he says.

"By the time you get to 2040, you'll have an aged population, which brings about its own problems that you don't know if you can keep under control," he adds.

But many more are optimistic.

MP Foo Mee Har - who oversees Ayer Rajah division in West Coast GRC, with the JLD separated by the AYE - says her residents are in the "sweet spot" of enjoying all the amenities the JLD currently offers, and yet are not affected by road congestion in the area.

But she notes that if planned road works to alleviate congestion go through, then her ward will be even more integrated.

"The sooner the road problem is solved, the sooner we will feel more connected to JLD, even if the distance hasn't changed," she says.









Keeping the bustle moving
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Sunday Times, 17 Dec 2017

The Tan family faces a quandary every morning: How best to get their 17-year-old daughter to school?

Software businessman Aaron Tan, 51, can spend up to 40 minutes being stuck in traffic while ferrying his daughter to Victoria Junior College in the east from his Jurong East home.

She can ride on the East-West MRT line, but it is packed during peak hours.

"She isn't guaranteed a seat," he tells Insight. "I just want her to have some extra space and time to sleep or study," he says.

Aware of the crowded roads and MRT trains, the authorities have plans to lighten congestion and improve access in the future Jurong Lake District (JLD).

In the short term, they will introduce a new road to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE) to divert traffic from roads such as Jurong Town Hall Road.

Urban Redevelopment Authority chief executive Lim Eng Hwee points out that most of the traffic in Jurong Town Hall Road comes from residents in Bukit Batok, Choa Chu Kang and Jurong West who use the road to connect to the AYE.

"We want a road that will connect all the traffic, let that bypass the JLD and discharge everything to the AYE. Once we do that, we can even size down Jurong Town Hall Road, which means that traffic will be even lighter than today," he says.

"We won't see this happen overnight," he adds.

"But if you want to see 30 per cent of the district developed, then the road has to be in place."



The larger, ambitious plan is to shift people's reliance on cars towards public transport.

Mr Lim notes the heavy commuter traffic originating in Jurong East, but adds that the authorities are working hard to create extra capacity. The Downtown Line, for example, has absorbed about 10 per cent of commuters using the North-South and East-West lines.

Accessibility within Jurong and across the island will also be improved with the Jurong Region Line and Cross Island Line, which will be ready by 2025 and 2030 respectively.

"In terms of public transport, when it's fully built up, this infrastructure will make a huge difference," he says.

To further encourage people to go car-lite, on-demand driverless buses are expected to ply dedicated public transport-only roads.

The URA is also looking to cut down the number of delivery trucks in the district during peak hours by at least 65 per cent by consolidating deliveries off-site.

Nanyang Technological University senior transport research consultant Gopinath Menon says the plans are in line with the goal to have zero growth in the vehicle population.

The challenge is making sure that public transport alternatives are viable and reliable, he adds.

"Right now, if you haven't bought a car yet, there are plenty of alternatives.

"But can we get it to the stage where if you have a car, you can be convinced to give it up?" he says.




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