Ageing building and high maintenance costs make conserving Pearl Bank Apartments a challenge




It was once Singapore's tallest residential building and remains a landmark four decades down the road, but the horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank Apartments could well fall victim to a demolition crew.

The building - sold to developer CapitaLand in a collective sale on Feb 13 - will likely not be conserved despite the wishes of heritage lovers and the Singapore architect who designed it.

Pearl Bank Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST) chairman Cecilia Seet and Ms Tang Wei Leng, managing director at marketing agent Colliers International, told The Straits Times that there are no plans to conserve Pearl Bank.

However, CapitaLand promised to "look into blending the heritage elements with modern aesthetics" in the new building to "reflect the rich, multifaceted culture of Chinatown".

Ms Seet noted: "There is no conservation mentioned in the collective sale agreement. We have no proposed plans for conservation."

Pearl Bank Apartments was sold to CapitaLand for $728 million, making it fourth time lucky for the condominium in Outram Park.

Owners of the 288 apartments, which range in size from 1,323 sq ft to 3,993 sq ft, stand to receive between $1.8 million and $4.9 million.

The owners of the eight commercial units, which vary from 700 sq ft to 5,630 sq ft, could reap between $1.2 million and $6.9 million.

Pearl Bank's architect, Mr Tan Cheng Siong, 81, told The Straits Times on the day the deal was announced that it is his "hope and desire" that the new owner will conserve the tower.

Pearl Bank's architect, Mr Tan Cheng Siong, called for Pearl Bank Apartments to be conserved. PHOTO: ST FILE


"The redevelopment formula does not have to comprise only tearing down a structure, especially if the original building has high architectural and heritage value," he added.

Other architects also called for the condo to be conserved, citing its unique architecture and design, as well as its historical significance.

After all, the building was among the pioneers of high-rise, high-density living here.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority had said previously that there are merits in Pearl Bank's conservation, given the building set standards for later condo developments on provision of communal amenities such as common areas, clubhouses and shops.

However, the owners do not share such sentiments.

"While Pearl Bank Apartments - completed in 1976 - has been a visible landmark in Outram, the ageing building no longer adequately meets the residents' needs, and the costs involved to upkeep the premises are high," Ms Seet added.

She noted that it costs about $2.5 million to maintain and repair key facilities every two years.

As MCST chairman, she has had to deal with numerous complaints from residents over leaking pipes that caused flooding and sparked quarrels among neighbours.

There were 84 cases of pipe leaks last year and more than $20,000 was spent on lift maintenance.

There are also no barrier-free access features in the building, making it an unfriendly environment for some elderly residents.

These were some of the reasons most owners had agreed to a collective sale as early as 2007, said Ms Seet. Owners had attempted three sales - in 2007, 2008 and 2011 - that failed, possibly due to poor market timing.

Ms Seet said those failed attempts and the reality of an ageing property in need of repairs likely prompted more than 90 per cent of the owners to back a proposal to conserve the building in 2015.

Back then, the owners had wanted to increase its gross floor area and sell this extra space so a developer could build a second apartment block on top of their five-storey carpark. The proceeds would have allowed the owners to retrofit the existing building, but there was not enough backing for the proposal.

Unit owner Edward Phang said some owners were not keen on the conservation plan as they would have had to live with the noise and dust from the construction of the new building and the decrepit state of the old one.

Mrs Phang bought the unit about a decade ago and has rented it out. It used to fetch $6,000 a month but now it gets only about $2,000.

"There are a lot of repairs needed and I have received six to seven complaints on water seepage. It is everyone's prayers for the en bloc to go through," said the retired doctor.

Ms Tang said it is difficult to know when residents will have to vacate. Typically, it takes about six months to get various regulatory approvals. Once these have been obtained, the parties have three months to complete the transaction. Then residents have six months to vacate.

CapitaLand said it plans to redevelop the site into a high-rise project of around 800 units, with a finish date in early 2023.

Mrs Phang noted: "I like the exterior design of the building and I admire the architect's talent. But the discussion about fighting for heritage is from observers, and we owners have to bear the financial and ill-health costs that come with any construction, which is unsustainable.

"I think the best way out is for the new building to be redeveloped in a way that preserves the essence of the architect's design - its circular structure - and allows new units to have the existing great views."


Written by Janice Tai for The Straits Times