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Fates of 15 businesses in Tiong Bahru uncertain under URA re-zoning exercise

SINGAPORE — To curb the impact of a growing number of businesses on the Tiong Bahru estate, the Urban Redevelopment Authority will be re-zoning some sites there to specify where commercial uses are allowed.

Fates of 15 businesses in Tiong Bahru uncertain under URA re-zoning exercise

An aerial view of the Tiong Bahru estate on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

SINGAPORE — To curb the impact of a growing number of businesses on the Tiong Bahru estate, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) will be re-zoning some sites there to specify where commercial uses are allowed.

Currently, some 15 businesses — including artisanal shops, art galleries, offices, yoga and dance studios — may be operating at the first storey of residential buildings without approval.

Some of them are located along Tiong Poh Road, Eng Hoon Street, Seng Poh Road and Yong Siak Street, but URA did not reveal the names of these businesses, which are mostly new to the estate.

The URA said on Tuesday (July 24) that they have been engaging these business operators, owners and tenants to work with them to address the infringements “within a reasonable timeframe”.

TODAY understands that they can continue to operate at those premises provided that they meet the conditions of the two schemes for running a home-based business or a home office. For instance, those running a home-based business cannot employ people outside the household, while home offices can only hire up to two workers.

The businesses may have to relocate if they do not meet the conditions.

In 2015, the URA took enforcement action on 12 shops in the Tiong Bahru estate because they were operating from residential premises without approval. According to media reports, these businesses were given a month to stop operating or face enforcement action.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, the URA said the Tiong Bahru community has in recent years provided feedback on the increasing number of businesses, and their impact on the residential neighbourhood.

Among other things, the residents emphasised the need to maintain residential amenity for a good living environment while allowing a good mix of businesses to serve residents and visitors. The community also wanted more information on where commercial uses are allowed in the estate, said the URA.

TODAY understands that residents raised concerns about noise, indiscriminate littering, and safety issues since fewer people live at these units when the businesses close for the day.

Currently, there are about 120 authorised businesses located on the first floors of the residential buildings in the estate, and within the conserved pre-war Singapore Improvement Trust flats. More than half of them are operating on land that has been identified for residential and commercial use on the first floor only.

Of the 120 businesses, 28 are operating on premises set aside only for residential use, but had obtained separate approvals to run their businesses on the first floors, said the URA. They include Flock Cafe, Por Kee Eating House, The Modern Outfitters and Ting Heng Seafood Restaurant.

The approvals received include the Written Permission issued by the URA from the 1960s to the 1970s, as well as leases issued by the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in the late 1940s.

With the re-zoning exercise, these 28 businesses — mostly located between Eng Hoon Street and Eng Watt Street — will have their premises re-zoned as residential with commercial use allowed on the first floors.

These changes come after the authorities spent the last two years monitoring and studying the situation.

A URA spokesperson added: “The 28 units identified have been operating with approvals for first storey commercial uses from decades ago, and have become part of the estate’s fabric. Hence, we are rezoning them to recognise their approved use and provide transparency on where commercial uses can be allowed.”

The exercise will also try to ensure that commercial uses of the area do not sprout out indiscriminately across the residential estate, he added.

The rezoning exercise is a statutory process and will be completed within a month.

TO STAY, OR GO

While some among the 15 businesses affected by the re-zoning had taken a chance on the area despite knowing that the authorities could catch up with them, others were unhappy about losing shop spaces that offered cheaper rent.

Mr Jamie (not his real name), a 67-year-old shopkeeper who did not want to be identified, said he was drawn by the mix of rich “heritage, culture, feeling, and art deco” in Tiong Bahru.

Rent was also a big selling point, as a commercial space could cost up to S$15,000 in rent. In comparison, ground floor residential units cost some S$6,000 in monthly rental in 2015.

Despite the regulations, some business owners like Mr Jamie came into the picture with their eyes wide open. He knew it was only a matter of time before the authorities would clamp down on them, he said.

Still, he felt the latest move was “rules-driven" by a "bureaucratic” authority, adding that the estate would lose a part of its soul, as well as its unique “flavour and spice” – which would affect the buzz of the area.

“(Visitors) who come here, are stimulated by the art, think out of the box, stop thinking about money,” he said.

He suggested that the authorities could have chosen to close the food and beverage outlets, bars and pubs to deal with customers’ complaints about noise, and retained “cultural” stores such as booksellers and artisans.

Such rules would only force retail shops like his to shutter and relocate to other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, as the rent for commercial spaces here is too expensive, and Singapore ultimately “loses out”, said Mr Jamie. 

He added they had been told of the news only on Tuesday morning, and there was no attempt to consult with shopkeepers like himself. 

Despite Tuesday’s announcement, some business owners are planning to stay put.

Ms Sam Lim, the human resource and finance manager at local shoe brand, anothersole, said that her office is “fine” even after the re-zoning. This, despite the brand’s home office falling outside the rezoned commercial area on Eng Hoon Street.

She said that prior to the rezoning, the brand had already met URA guidelines as a non-retail home office. The rented unit is not commercial, but acts as a home base for her employees, and a space for potential customers to browse products on display but not to purchase them. Instead, the fashion brand sells its products in department stores.Ms Lim said her “centralised” home office offered a cheaper alternative to stores in Orchard.

Pointing out that they have not heard any residents complaining about noise or disruption from their office, they plan to move to a “real commercial area” once business picks up.

Another home office owner who is an antique collector uses his unit — also located outside the commercial zones — to store his collection. The collector, who declined to be identified, told TODAY that he does not make any sales in the store, but owns an online shop.

Customers would come to his home office to browse the antiques that they saw online before making purchases over the Internet.  He either delivers them to customers — many of them reside overseas — or allows for collection from his home office.

He told TODAY that he “does not expect to stop” collecting antiques and selling them remotely, but that he will “discuss with the authorities” about whether he meets the URA requirements.

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