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Losing its lustre: The Golden Mile dilemma

While most of the people who own commercial units support a collective sale, there are more residents who do not want to sell their units. Meanwhile, some architects and historians hope the iconic building will be conserved

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The physical decline of Golden Mile Complex stems from its status as a strata-title leasehold property, which means that the building has hundreds of individual owners.

ANDE Lai has a great view at home. He bought his two-bedroom apartment in Golden Mile Complex in 1986 with this view in mind.

Standing on his 14th floor balcony, he could see the old national stadium. At low tide, he could smell the ocean.

He hoped that moving closer to his photography shop, which he ran out of the first floor of the building with his wife, would allow him to spend more time with his one-year-old daughter.

This was before Golden Mile Complex itself and three other post-independence landmarks were under threat of demolition.

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The owners of each building have begun the search for a buyer who will take over the building from the current occupants.

"For these buildings, we are at an inflexion point in time," said Karen Tan, the founder of an independent cinema in Golden Mile Tower. She acknowledged that there may be economic reasons to sell and demolish the buildings, but questioned the decision on a personal level:  "How do you factor in all the intangible things? The history, the heritage, its relevance to the city and people's identity."

In the decade after gaining its independence, Singapore changed rapidly. People moved out of congested shophouses or kampongs and into new apartments.

Golden Mile Complex, with its iconic stepped form, emerged as a symbol of this rapid national development. The building synthesised the prevailing international architectural aesthetic with a young nation's ambitions of urban renewal.

"This (landscape that represented an era) is what we are trying to safeguard for the future generation, because you only go through nation-building once," Ho Weng Hin, a conservation architect, said.

Golden Mile Complex was completed in 1973, and its sister building Golden Mile Tower, located next door, was completed a year later. Some long-time business owners still occupy their units today, but little else has remained the same for this Brutalist icon.

In 2006, a politician described Golden Mile Complex as a "vertical slum" and a "national disgrace". Years of poor maintenance, low occupancy and low rent had caused the building's physical state to deteriorate.

Mr Ho explained that the physical decline of Golden Mile Complex stems from its status as a strata-title leasehold property, which means that the building has hundreds of individual owners.

At the start of the lease, everyone pools money into a fund, known as a sinking fund, which is used for building repairs. But there is no mechanism for the sinking fund to maintain the cash flow. Over time, the money dries up. The shared swimming pool has long been drained and lies unused, abandoned. Pipes often leak into residents' bedrooms and balconies.

Individual owners embarked on DIY construction projects, covering their balconies with corrugated sheet metal, marring the iconic stepped facade of the building.

Many owners make money by renting out their units. But because the rental value of the space is very low, it is hard to make a living this way. On the other hand, the building sits on prime real estate, well-located in the city centre, and could sell for a higher price.

While the vast majority of people who own commercial units support a collective sale, Mr Lai said that there are more residents who do not want to sell their units.

For one, residents expect that there will be a disparity in the payout for residential and commercial owners.

Mr Lai, who is on the collective sale committee for Golden Mile Complex, said that the en bloc price will be about S$1,400 per square foot for an apartment unit.

But shop owners like James Ang, who owns a stationery and insurance business in Golden Mile Tower, predict the commercial unit en bloc price will be at least S$2,000 per square foot, if not more.

Many residents are tenants who have little say over the fate of the building. Others find themselves in the minority of homeowners unwilling to sell their homes.

For each of the four buildings to be sold, there needs to be a consensus among owners holding 80 per cent of the building's share value and area. As long as the 80 per cent agree to sell, minority homeowners will be silenced.

Some people, particularly architects and historians like Mr Ho and Chang Jiat-Hwee, a professor of modern architecture at the National University of Singapore, hope that the government will take steps to protect the building from being demolished by designating it for conservation.

"The (Urban Redevelopment Authority) is open to explore win-win solutions with owners of private modern buildings that have merit for conservation," Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said in an email.

But what does a win-win solution look like in the seemingly zero-sum world of real estate?

Tan Cheng Siong, a pioneering architect who designed Pearl Bank Apartments, offered voluntary conservation as a possible answer.

For the past three years, he has worked with residents of the Pearl Bank Apartments to create an owner-led development plan, which would allow architects and consultants to work with owners to rejuvenate and upgrade the building.

But the plan fell through. Mr Tan had obtained the consent of 93 per cent of residents, but proposals for voluntary conservation that will involve alterations to the building require a 100 per cent consensus among owners.

A more organic and long-term solution would be to let the building gain stature and importance in the public eye over time.

Mr Ho made an analogy to Singapore's shophouses. "In the past we didn't romanticise shophouses as heritage because everyone living in them was in dire condition. But we took a step back, decided to conserve them, and now they are much coveted buildings," he said. He thinks that there is a similar potential for enhancing the value of Golden Mile.

The phenomenon has already begun. In recent years, the Golden Mile buildings have been revitalised as young entrepreneurs and creatives take advantage of the low rent and generous space available in the building to set up creative design studios, bars and Singapore's first independent cinema, The Projector.

Ms Tan is optimistic about the conservation possibilities for the Golden Mile buildings. "I think there is an opportunity here," she said. "It's not straightforward how one can unlock it … but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying to do it."

  • This is a shortened version of an article that was first published in the September issue of Yale Daily News Magazine, the oldest college daily newspaper in the United States. The writer is a Singaporean and can be contacted at kolyn.cheang@yale.edu