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[UPDATE] From REIT to public service: SLA’s Colin Low heeds the call

Low: This is a balancing act between conservation of nature and development. The reality is that Singapore is so small. Every square metre counts, and there is an opportunity cost for everything (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - It has been 18 months since Colin Low assumed the CEO role of the statutory board Singapore Land Authority (SLA). The 46-year-old wore a different hat previously, that of CEO of Frasers Hospitality Asset Management and Frasers Hospitality Trust Management, the manager for Singapore-listed Frasers Hospitality real estate investment trust (REIT), from July 2019 to April 2021.

Read also: Colin Low appointed as Frasers Hospitality Trust CEO

With a $1.9 billion portfolio (as of September this year), the REIT has 14 assets and 14 master lease contracts. These are spread across nine cities in six countries, from Dresden, Germany, to Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in the UK; over to Kobe in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

“Running a REIT was about driving distribution per unit for the stakeholders, largely the investors in the REIT,” says Low. “When Covid hit, it was such a massive, unprecedented pandemic. A lot of people began to rethink their lives. It was the same for me. And when the call came for this role, I was pleasantly surprised.”

SLA, the custodian of State land and properties, has a stable of 2,700 buildings and 11,000 ha (110 million sq m) of land, which translates to about 15% of Singapore’s land area islandwide. “SLA has a wide platform, and it’s all about Singapore,” says Low. “Once you join the public service, there is a sense of dedication as the stakeholders are the everyday Singaporeans. Hence, you have to see what is best for the people around you.”

The area being studied under the Environmental Impact Assessment for the development of the new Bayshore precinct (Source: DHI Water & Environment report/HDB) 

‘Balancing act’

Sometimes, it also means dealing with public concerns. A recent example is an outcry which greeted the Housing Development Board’s (HDB) environmental impact assessment report on clearing 31.2ha of forested areas to make way for the new Bayshore precinct. HDB released the report on its website on Nov 1, seeking public feedback until Nov 29.

Bounded by Upper East Coast Road, East Coast Parkway and Bedok Camp on Upper East Coast Road, the Bayshore precinct occupies a 60ha site. It is slated to have about 12,000 dwelling units, of which 6,500 are private residential units and 6,000 are HDB flats. The precinct is envisioned to have a pedestrianised main street and will be served by two MRT stations on the Thomson-East Coast Line — Bayshore and Bedok South — by 2024. (Find HDB flats for rent or sale with our Singapore HDB directory)

The environmental impact assessment report by DHI Water and Environment consultant in September concluded that the impact of clearing the 31.2ha vegetation is expected to be “irreversible”. The impact will be below “minor negative” with proper control and mitigation measures. However, the report says that the loss of flora and avifauna habitats during construction will have a “moderate negative” impact even after mitigation measures.

“This is a balancing act between nature conservation and development,” concedes SLA’s Low. “The reality is that Singapore is so small. Every square metre counts, and there is an opportunity cost to everything we do.”

The authorities, from the Ministry for National Development to SLA and all the other agencies, recognise the need for “a calibrated approach to get the best outcome”, he adds. “If we feel that housing is needed here, then we have to see how best to do things differently, such as conducting an environmental impact study.”

Turf City has been earmarked for future residential development, with tenants' leases to end on Dec 31, 2023 (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

A matter of perspective

It is all a matter of perspective, and to prove his point, Low gave an analogy: “If you look at a close-up shot of a rough-looking man first approaching, and then shoving a well-dressed gentleman, you will immediately think that the former is trying to harm the latter,” he says. “But if you zoom out, you will see that, in reality, the rough-looking man was just trying to save the well-dressed gentleman from a falling brick.”

Likewise, he adds: “If we zoom in on a particular location, it’s easy to ask why something isn’t done. But if you zoom out and look at the needs of the island as a whole, considering housing, infrastructure like roads, train stations and train lines, what are the trade-offs?”

Another site that has been earmarked for future residential development is Turf City. It had been safeguarded for that purpose since the 1998 Master Plan. SLA has been managing Turf City since 1999. It is now leased out for lifestyle and recreational uses, including retail, F&B, sports and recreation, childcare centres and motor vehicle showrooms.

Tenants have been given 18-month tenancy extensions up to Dec 31, 2023. In September, LTA announced that one of the six stations in Phase 2 of the Cross Island Line would be sited at Turf City. Located on Turf Club Road, off Dunearn Road, Turf City is situated within the prime Bukit Timah residential enclave of District 11.

“The redevelopment of brownfield sites such as Turf City will allow the Government to make optimal use of the land and transport infrastructure,” says URA in its Sept 23 release. URA added that detailed technical studies such as environmental and heritage studies would be carried out “to ensure that any development will be sensitively integrated with its surrounding environment”.

The former Henderson Secondary School is anchored by social enterprise City Sprouts, with a 9,000 sq m (close to 98,000 sq ft) food and social hub, with allotment farms for rent (Photo: SLA)

Adaptive reuse of former schools

With land being “a precious resource in land-scarce Singapore”, Low sees SLA as a place maker too. Vacant state land plots at Wilmonar Avenue, off Dunearn Road, and Yarrow Gardens in the Siglap area, off East Coast Road, have been turned into community and recreational spaces such as a dog-run park and multi-generational playground.

Falling birth rates in Singapore have led to school mergers over the past two decades. An unintended consequence is more defunct school properties returned to SLA. The statutory board is looking at adaptive reuse of these properties, “which is the best form of sustainability,” says Low.

The former Henderson Secondary School along Henderson Road in Redhill is an example. Anchored by social enterprise City Sprouts since 2020, it has been given a new lease of life as a 9,000 sq m (close to 98,000 sq ft) food and social hub, with regular events and workshops. The urban farm offers allotment farm plots for rent. The former school canteen has been repurposed to house F&B tenants. Currently undergoing a revamp, the F&B area is targeted to reopen sometime in 4Q2022.

Located within the same premises as City Sprouts is a PAP Community Foundation (PFC) Sparkletots preschool and Sunnyville Nursing Home dialysis nursing centre. “We were drawn to the concept of having an urban farm in a co-located space — in this case, between a childcare centre and nursing home — to show that farms can be set up anywhere with a little creativity,” Chee Zhi Kin, co-founder of City Sprouts commented.

The former Loyang Primary School has been subdivided into two parcels. One parcel was taken up by My First Skool, which operates a childcare centre and kindergarten on the premises. The other parcel will be subdivided for other complementary uses (Photo: SLA)

Another example is the former Batu Berlayar School at Pasir Panjang Road. The three-storey building on an 88,000 sq ft site has been turned into a campus-style office space with a collaborative community library and town hall venue for the 220 employees of ShopBack. A cashback reward programme for online shoppers in Asia Pacific, ShopBack was co-founded by Henry Chan and Joel Leong in 2014. The property serves as ShopBack’s headquarters. The space on the ground floor of the building is shared with the content creation studio Third Space.

On the other hand, the former Loyang Primary School has been subdivided into two parcels due to its size. One parcel was taken up by My First Skool, which operates a childcare centre and kindergarten on the premises. The other parcel will be subdivided for other complementary uses.

“With most schools located within residential areas, they are ideal as an integrated community hub to serve the needs of residents,” adds SLA’s Low. They are also ideal as co-working spaces, he adds.

The former Command House hosted the Louis Vuitton Savoir Faire 2022: The Art of Living this year (Photo: SLA)

Activating vacant properties

Another source of underutilised properties is former community centres. At 10 Kampong Eunos, the former community centre has been tenanted to the social impact organisation Vivita, which aims to equip youths with robotics and artificial intelligence skills through interactive programmes, workshops, camps and competitions.

Another state-owned property at Lorong J Telok Kurau was leased to the voluntary welfare organisation Willing Hearts, which moved in at the end of June. It runs a soup kitchen that cooks and distributes 11,000 meals daily.

A historic building that has just returned to SLA’s stable is the former Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road. Built sometime between 1937 and 1938, it sits on an 11.5 acre (500,940 sq ft) site and was formerly the official residence of the top-ranking British commander in Malaya and other military officials. In 2007, the former Command House became the UBS Business University until 2021, when it moved to its new premises at 9 Penang Road. The former Command House hosted the Louis Vuitton Savoir Faire 2022: The Art of Living this year. The two-week event showcased contemporary pieces by designer Nicolas Ghesquière, Virgil Abloh and Louis Vuitton’s iconic trunks and other high-end creations. “It shows that vacant state properties can be activated for creative interim use, including pop-up event spaces,” says SLA’s Low.

Gillman Barracks, the former military barracks dating back to 1936, has 17 colonial State properties spread across a 6.6 ha site (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Rejuvenating Gillman Barracks

With Dempsey Hill firmly established as a lifestyle and F&B enclave, SLA has turned its sights on rejuvenating Gillman Barracks. The former military barracks dating back to 1936 have 17 colonial-era State properties spread across a 6.6ha site.

Situated next to a park connector network along the Alexandra Garden Trail that links up Hort Park, Labrador Park and the Southern Ridges, Gillman Barracks is an ideal pit stop for cyclists, nature enthusiasts and casual hikers, says SLA. It is also a 10-minute walk from the Labrador Park MRT Station.

The first phase of tenders for five blocks at Gillman Barracks, launched in May, drew 19 proposals. SLA evaluated the bids based on price (with a 40% weightage) and quality of the proposed concepts, which had a 60% weightage. The lease period offered has also been changed to a five-year lease upfront, renewable for another two years. Before, it was a straight 3+3+3 year lease.

SLA has released the first phase of five tenders launched in May, with the second phase of two tenders launched in October, based on the price and quality of proposed concepts (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

“It’s not just the highest bidder who will win, but the one with a new business idea, an interesting concept that involves the community and has elements of sustainability,” says Low.

Two blocks were awarded to two new F&B tenants — Wheeler’s Estate at 9A Lock Road and The BlackBird at 8 Lock Road. The other three tenders were awarded to three incumbents: Creamier at 5A Lock Road, Handlebar at 10 Lock Road and Hopscotch at 45 Malan Road, which feature refreshed offerings and programmes aligned with Gillman Barracks’ creative lifestyle positioning.

The second phase was launched on Oct 18. The two tenders are for sites at Blocks 9, 43 and 47. Block 43 along Malan Road has the largest gross floor area in Gillman Barracks, at more than 10,000 sq ft. Blocks 43 and 47 have rustic red brick exteriors. “The larger floorspace and outdoor area present possibilities such as artisanal craft, fitness and wellness, vertical farming, family bonding, and co-working spaces,” says Low. The tender will close on January 11, 2023. The tenders will be similarly evaluated according to price and quality of proposals, like the first phase. The leases will likewise be based on a five-year upfront lease, with an option to renew for a further two years.

SLA’s geospatial team is mapping out the solar potential of Singapore (Source: SLA)

Geospatial technology

Besides the adaptive reuse of properties, SLA has been championing geospatial technology and its applications. Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) were signed with the five biggest real estate agencies from September to December 2021, starting with PropNex, followed by ERA, Huttons Asia, OrangeTee and SRI. “The top five real estate agencies collectively have 80% market share of the agents in Singapore,” says Low. “We are doing this to democratise the use of OneMap and to make it more mainstream.”

With the 3DOneMap, real estate agents can show homebuyers the distance from their new home to the nearest primary school or MRT station with greater accuracy. It can also show 3D views of the surrounding area from different levels of different blocks. The shadow casting feature will help homebuyers visualise the shadows cast at different times of the day, especially if the units are not in the north-south direction.

SLA also signed MOUs with the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore, courier service Ninja Van, Kabam robotics engineering firm and the Singapore Business Federation. Low believes geospatial technology can have a wide spectrum of mainstream applications, including education.

Geospatial technology can also be used to help the community. With an ageing population, a map showing barrier-free routes will help the elderly, those with mobility issues and even parents with young children, he adds.

SLA’s geospatial team is mapping out the solar potential of Singapore. It is also working on 3D modelling and simulation applications with the Public Utilities Board to map out areas more vulnerable to inland flooding. SLA also signed an MOU with the National University of Singapore (NUS) faculty of science in October to leverage geospatial data and technology for carbon estimation research. Low sees geospatial technology as “a critical enabler of sustainability”.

It is hard to believe that Low had initially struggled with all the acronyms when he first joined SLA. “There are so many acronyms in the public sector,” he says. But over time, he has become fluent in them.

Check out the latest listings near Gillman Barracks, Labrador Park MRT Station

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