SINGAPORE: It was once an area struggling with a reputation as a tourist trap, with aggressive touting and overcharging complaints not uncommon. Aside from "unsavoury business practices", the Singapore River precinct wasn't exactly a pretty sight, said Michelle Koh, executive director of Singapore River One (SRO).
"We had overhanging cables running from shophouses to the outdoor refreshment area (at Boat Quay), and it was unsightly and not safe," she said.
That was why seven landlords in the area came together to form an association in 2012, to help tackle these challenges in a more coordinated manner. Since then, Singapore River One has expanded to include over 110 property and business owners, managing Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay.
Having a coordinated platform where all the stakeholders could have their say helped, said Ms Koh.
"One key thing we learnt from the onset was to listen to the stakeholders so we could bring their concerns and feedback to the various agencies, and see how we can overcome bad practices (by) educating business operators," she said.
Since then, the association has cleaned up the area and pulled off more coordinated marketing and management efforts, such as the signature annual Singapore River Festival and St Patrick's Day Street Festival, as well as a permanent car-free zone at Circular Road.
Its efforts were also given a leg up when it took on the mantle of piloting Singapore’s first pilot Business Improvement District (BID) last April. Under the private sector-led model, asset owners develop detailed business plans, which must garner at least 51 per cent support from all property owners within the precinct's boundaries. The government will then co-fund the collected membership fees, capped at S$500,000 annually for a four-year period.
Currently, SRO's annual membership fees vary depending on the size of asset owners, from S$100 onwards for small business operators to a few thousand for landlords.
"In the past nobody knew what a BID was. Everybody was very reliant on the government sector to provide those resources," said Ms Koh. "Our job was to get them to understand there will be a certain cap to what the government can do.
"The key thing was for us to band together, to be a collective voice in terms of marketing as well as asking ourselves what we want to elevate the Singapore River in terms of place-making initiatives."
She added that these include organising new events such as a Halloween street party and installing mural art along the precinct, with plans to showcase more signage and benches in the area as well.
With more vibrant activities and a cleaner reputation, footfall has increased, with weekly visitorship increasing by 11 per cent, from 1.3 million in the first half of 2017 to 1.4 million in the first half of this year.
"Previously under the loose informal association set-up, the rules were not as clear," said Ku Swee Yong, adjunct faculty member at Singapore Management University's Lee Kong Chian School of Business.
"So every landlord and tenant involved would probably be considering their own interests first," Mr Ku said. "Under the BID with a more formalised structure, there would be a lot of better coordination and ability to push through these programmes."
BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS A "GOOD IN-BETWEEN SOLUTION"
For these reasons, the Government is studying the feasibility of legislating BIDs in the future, by piloting another nine across a mix of precinct profiles, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced on Sep 17. These include the historic Kampong Glam, Central Business District (CBD) precincts of Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place, as well as suburban precincts at Jurong Gateway and Paya Lebar.
"We have limited resources in terms of having Government policy planners look into every nook and cranny of Singapore. The Government's master planning and policymaking would be for new precincts like Bidadari or Tengah, or rejuvenation of very old estates," said Mr Ku.
"So for the Government to want to upgrade Raffles Place, taxpayers might protest – what’s wrong with Raffles Place that we have to spend to add sidewalks," he said. "There would be certain parts of Singapore in their middle age or teen years that require a new lease of life to be injected. So this private sector-led with Government grants is a good in-between solution."
If legislated in the future, more precincts that might have missed out otherwise could also see a facelift under the BID model, said Mr Ku, citing the example of Changi Point.
"It's is where water, sea and leisure sports people travel out to Pulau Ubin for its nature reserve. The community of retailers, service providers and F&B operators in Changi Point could start up a BID to provide better accessibility and connectivity by traffic and sheltered walkways that offer all-weather access," Mr Ku said.
One of the selected precincts to pilot a BID is China Place, located a stone's throw away from the more well-known Chinatown district. It's an area bustling with the office crowd on weekdays thanks to the office crowd, but a ghost town on weekends.
In 2012, three landlords - Great Eastern, Frasers Property and Far East Organization - came together in an attempt to make the precinct more attractive, such as by building an overhead canopy to provide shelter for businesses and pedestrians to encourage more people to dine in outdoor areas.
The precinct also rebranded itself as China Place with design motifs found on the pillars and pathways across Nankin Row, China Square Central and Far East Square, linking the three malls and its connecting walkways.
While these efforts helped to improve traffic somewhat, they remained "limited", said Low Chee Wah, chairman of the China Place pilot BID task force. "It was probably more of a limited effort because on our own, I think there’s much more limited resources."
"A lot more can be done, particularly on weekends and weekday evenings. We hope that this pilot BID will give a formalised structure to do much more as there's a lot of potential work to be done," said Mr Low, who is also the retail and commercial head at Frasers Property.
The precinct's plans include activating common spaces, improving wayfinding with signage as well as creating a more distinctive identity through signature events and festivals, to draw "not just occupants but visitors and potentially tourists to this area", Mr Low said.
MANY VOICES, ONE TABLE
But getting support from a majority of stakeholders to approve the business plans for a precinct may not be easy, especially for areas like Kampong Glam, which houses over a hundred property owners with diverse needs and interests. So far, 11 stakeholders are on board the initial pilot BID task force, including shophouse owners, two hotel operators, as well as community partners such as the Sultan Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre.
One of them is third-generation shop owner Johari Kazura, whose family started a perfume trade there the 1930s.
"There’s a lot of voices at the table, different communities, types of owners, that are going to be represented. And that means that whatever happens to Kampong Glam, part of it is decided by this diverse group of people," said Mr Kazura, who is the owner of Sifr Aromatics.
"Before this it was just growth, gentrification happening by itself while different groups, government groups or arts groups had different things they were doing to promote their work – there was no 'everyone let’s sit down and see what we can do for this area'."
To garner support, the task force will organise a series of meetings with stakeholders to share its plans and their benefits. It will also set up a new entity called Kampong Gelam Association to front the precinct's BID, and will absorb One Kampong Gelam, the existing business association spearheading promotional efforts, said its chairman Olivier Lenoir.
"Now it's an official system in place with a structure, and we're recognised by the Government," said Mr Lenoir, who is also general manager of Andaz Singapore.
"If this becomes legislated, we'd then be recognised and it'd become mandatory to be part of the Kampong Gelam Alliance if you're in Kampong Glam.
"It's the formality that's very helpful. Being official means we'll be bigger, bigger means more funds and more impact on the community. We'd have the funds and structure in place, and the team behind to support and assist us in the process."
Having a single platform where all stakeholders can engage the government with was also a key reason why developers in the up-and-coming Paya Lebar precinct banded together to pilot a BID.
"We foresaw that when we wanted to put forth initiatives that having a unified voice was a very efficient way of liaising with the government to get some things implemented and to save the government some time, than soliciting individual input," said Richard Paine, co-chair of the Paya Lebar pilot BID task force and managing director of Paya Lebar Quarter.
"Quite often individuals may have a very interesting idea, but when put forward to government agencies naturally they solicit other stakeholder views."
"But from a pure efficiency point of view, if we can put forward an idea to Government agencies that has the overall support from all stakeholders, that in itself is a unified way to moving forward and getting things done."
Such sentiment among private stakeholders is not uncommon, said Chou Mei, group director of conservation and urban design at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
"One of the things we have heard from BID stakeholders is that oftentimes they find it challenging to get different agencies at the same table," she said. "As a collective, (the BID) is a good platform for them to play an advocacy role for them to have common platform to have dialogues with agencies to discuss plans for their precinct.
"If they have a good plan to manage precincts in a coordinated manner, I think agencies are prepared to let them have more autonomy in the way they want to use certain spaces or run certain events."
REJUVENATING THE HEARTLANDS
Channel NewsAsia understands that efforts are also underway to explore whether pilot BIDs can be implemented in the heartlands, to inject new life in the public housing retail scene such as in Ang Mo Kio and Bedok.
But challenges remain, such as raising enough support from merchants and retailers, who must pay membership fees under the BID model, arranging for the use of public spaces under the purview of different town councils, and being mindful not to create disturbances to residents living nearby when planning events and activities.
"Merchant associations have already been implementing place management initiatives such as promotional activities and festive events in HDB towns and neighbourhood centres," said a URA spokesperson.
He added that URA is working together with the Federation of Merchants’ Associations Singapore (FMAS), along with Enterprise Singapore and the Housing and Development Board to help heartland retailers participate in the pilot BID programme through the new Heartland Enterprise Centre, which aims to rejuvenate neighbourhood precincts.
The centre, which was announced on Sep 19, is a partnership between FMAS and the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies.
“When we plan a city, it is just the hardware,” said Ms Chou. "But for places to be liveable and lovable, it’s really the people and and activities that make it come alive. When we work closely with the community and private sector stakeholders, the impact is much better.
“Because the people on the ground know the places much better, they have an interest to promote their precinct, know the ground, and are better able to decide what they should do to set their precincts apart from other precincts."