Mixed-use Developments: Boon or Bane?

By Jennifer Chia

Integrated projects are pointing to the future of land use in increasingly crowded Singapore, but will they become white elephants as technology brings us (virtually) closer together than before?

As an Alpha+ world city, Singapore sits alongside commercial powerhouses like Beijing, Paris and Sydney as one of the world’s most globalised cities. However, the lack of land means that the island state needs to do more with less, which is why land use features prominently in Singapore’s future-proofing efforts. The Smart Nation initiative and the Master Plan 2019 envision a suite of cutting-edge advancements to the built environment, all designed to optimise the nation’s economic productivity while balancing competing stakeholder interests.

One theme is evident: integration. As one of the world’s most densely populated countries, Singapore is about to transform the nature of its real estate.

Live, work and play

As part of the overall strategy, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) plans to increase the live-in population of the downtown area – analysts suggest that the rationale for doing is three-fold: to cater for jobs that cannot be easily shifted out of the financial district; to alleviate stress on the public transportation network; and to avoid the inefficient use of prime real estate left empty after office hours and during weekends.

The solution may be more mixed-use developments. Incentives such as increased intensification and widened allowable land uses are being rolled out as part of the URA’s plan to reposition the CBD as a 24/7 mixed-use district.

Marina One in the Downtown Core provides a future the URA has envisioned: high-end restaurants, designer offices and luxury apartments, all contained within a single Babylonic superstructure, complete with hanging gardens and cascading waterfalls. With similar mega-projects in the pipeline, such as the S$2.4 billion Guoco Midtown in the Beach Road area, the CBD may become one of the nation’s most desirable lifestyle hubs, soon to be augmented with more outdoor refreshment areas, green spaces and dedicated cycling paths.

Of course, the mixed-use idea is not exactly new: in the ’70s, projects such as Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex arose out of Sale of Sites urban renewal programme run by URA’s predecessor. But because the residential, commercial and office units in these developments are strata-titled – in other words, individually owned – it proved arduous to obtain consensus from the various stakeholders in relation to the buildings’ maintenance, upgrading, tenant mix and so on. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Ivan Png famously criticised the decrepit Golden Mile Complex for being a “vertical slum”, a “terrible eyesore” and a “national disgrace”.

Things look to be different this time, though, as the URA appears to be conscientiously addressing strata ownership-related issues that have previously led to maintenance and redevelopment inertia. Under the Technical Conditions of Tender of recent White Sites sold under the Government Land Sales programme, the URA has been stipulating that successful tenderers must not strata subdivide the development beyond a maximum number of strata lots. This means that malls and offices in newer mixed-use projects are likely to be owned by only a handful of entities, allowing efficient and coordinated management of the property.

Bed, bath and beyond

Mixed-use projects could also provide a natural hedge for both developers and investors, offering diversification across various markets at a project level beyond the archetypal office, retail, and residence mould. The Punggol Digital District, which is scheduled to open in 2023, will be the first to adopt an integrated master plan that combines a residential estate with a business park and an educational campus. Spread across 50ha, Singapore Institute of Technology research laboratories and teaching facilities will be embedded within the business park and operate alongside multinational technology companies and start-ups. The entire district will be serviced by a centralised, semi-autonomous logistics hub and an underground pneumatic waste-conveyance system will replace traditional waste collection vehicles.

On the other end of the island, the Yang Kee integrated logistics hub serves as an innovative example of how homegrown companies have utilised technology to overcome challenges in an industry dominated by traditional family-run businesses and mired by a lack of breakthroughs. As the world’s first framed multi-storey automated container depot, the hub combines warehousing and depot facilities, leveraging on smart technologies to reduce manpower requirements while increasing overall productivity by a factor of six. The hub is positioned to service potential clients in the shipping, gas and oil sectors once the Tuas Mega Port comes online in 2021.

Evolving needs

At a macro-level, these integrated projects appear to be aimed at reducing congestion, improving accessibility to amenities and workspaces, and synergising previously discrete processes to maximise the use of Singapore’s limited land. In addition, these projects fulfil critical roles in an increasingly integrated business ecosystem. For example, a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer with a warehouse in an integrated business hub may find it easier to adopt an omni-channel business model that guarantees one-day product delivery, by simply contracting services from a vertically integrated logistics provider next door (think Amazon Fulfilment Centres for third parties).

But what are the speed humps that may stymie these utopian ideals?

Mixed-use developments bring together core amenities at a physical level – an attractive proposition for a busy professional or young family. No one really wants to drive out to a shopping mall, pay for parking and wait in a queue just to get groceries at 8pm on a weeknight.

But in an era increasingly dominated by the sharing economy, everything has already been catered for. Inexpensive hawker food and gourmet meals from Michelin guide restaurants can be delivered right to the doorstep within the hour. Groceries? Within 24 hours on average. Smart Technology has quite literally closed the distance between residents and access to amenities.

As communications technology becomes more seamless, remote working may become common practice – after all, office rents are high in Singapore, and every square inch of a workplace adds to company overheads. Co-working spaces and drop-in business lounges could accommodate team meetings or client conferences and provide flexible workspace alternatives at a fraction of the price. In a recent survey run by Regus, over half of global respondents confirm that they work remotely 2.5 days a week or more.

The movement restrictions due to the current Covid-19 pandemic have only intensified the shift away from the need to commute. And they would have escalated investments in technology and infrastructure that allow for better access and features in video-conferencing, VPN access to office networks and so on. Without doubt, online merchants and delivery services will also benefit from this period of surging demand for click-and-buy meals, groceries and other goods, by learning from experience clever methods to optimise and scale up their operations.

These developments’ impact will certainly be felt long after the pandemic is over. Businesses, for instance, may realise that a partially off-site workforce may lead to productivity gains, better business continuity and rental savings.

Simply put, long-term urban planning involving mixed-use developments and integrated projects may be attempting to solve problems that may not exist in the future. What will become of these high-tech (and equally high-maintenance) developments when they lose their lustre? It would be somewhat ironic if disruptive technologies – the very same ones the government hopes to harness – instead prove to be their undoing.

Maintenance will also pose an issue, particularly for large-scale, high-tech estates such as the Punggol Digital District. Even the most sophisticated systems of today will eventually face obsolescence, so one must consider the possibility of de-linking one system from the next without compromising overall integrity.

Mixed-use developments and integrated estates should continue to cater for legacy systems (what viable alternatives are there if an underground pneumatic waste disposal system breaks down?), and urban planners and developers must ensure that their developments retain their relevance well into the future – all the more important given the rapid advance in disruptive technologies.

The verdict? Cautious optimism. While the allure of cutting-edge, mixed-use developments and integrated projects may seem too good to turn down, we must also account for the effect of disruptive technologies on the longevity of these buildings.


TSMP law corporation