Category Archives: Boat Quay/Clarke Quay/Chinatown

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Office rents higher despite lower occupancy rate

Office rents have risen in the fourth quarter of this year despite a fall in occupancy rate, driven higher by expectations of even greater rent rises next year, a new report has found.

Property consultancy DTZ Research noted that net demand for office space this year was slightly lower at 1.36 million sq ft, down from 1.45 million sq ft last year.

The islandwide occupancy rate fell from 95.8 per cent in the third quarter to 93.6 per cent in the final three months of the year.

DTZ tracks a basket of office buildings. Only the space in the Marina Bay area posted a rise in the occupancy rate, from 91.2 per cent to 94.4 per cent, in the fourth quarter.

CapitaGreen and South Beach generated the most leasing activity in the fourth quarter.

CapitaGreen is a 700,000 sq ft office tower in the Central Business District (CBD). Mixed development South Beach near Raffles Hotel will offer 500,000 sq ft of office space.

The report, released yesterday, said both buildings offered rare opportunities for firms to be in a premium-grade office space in the CBD and on the CBD fringe, where supply is limited.

Ms Cheng Siow Ying, DTZ’s executive director of business space, said the sudden divestment of Equity Plaza earlier this year also added to the demand for office space this quarter.

Average monthly gross rents in the CBD rose between 2.4 and 4 per cent in the fourth quarter, compared with the previous quarter. Office space in Marina Bay registered the highest rent increase, from $12.75 to $13.25 per sq ft.

For the whole of this year, average monthly gross rents for offices in the CBD rose between 4 per cent and 19 per cent.

DTZ noted that this is much higher than the increase last year, which ranged from 2.4 per cent to 6.1 per cent.

The firm said rising rent levels this year have encouraged more traditional office users, such as banks, to move back-end operations to high-tech industrial space and business parks.

However, landlords anticipating further rent increases next year were willing to wait rather than lock in lower rents in the fourth quarter.

Landlords are optimistic owing to a limited supply next year, and growing demand from the technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) sector, serviced office operators and insurers.

Firms in the TMT sector are willing to pay higher rents to be in prime office districts, which helps in attracting talent and boosting brand positioning, DTZ noted.

Google recently expanded its presence in Asia Square and LinkedIn doubled their office footprint in Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 2. Mrs Ong Choon Fah, DTZ’s regional head of consulting and research, said: “Growth in the TMT firms is supported through growth in cloud technology, social media, Internet and big data.

“As these TMT firms expand, they are more inclined to seek out prime office buildings situated in Marina Bay or newly completed buildings such as CapitaGreen.”

DTZ added that office rents are likely to continue rising next year, but at a slower rate.

Rental expectations will be partly mitigated by the 1.1 million sq ft of space to be released owing to leases expiring next year.

Mrs Ong said serviced offices are becoming a growing sector to consider in the office market. “Serviced offices have been expanding as swing space and co-working spaces are increasingly sought after due to their flexibility.”

Shophouse deals remain resilient despite volume drop

THE number and value of shophouse transactions so far this year is roughly half that of last year, as demand has been hit by tightened availability of loans, a compression of shophouse yields and investor interest being diverted to overseas properties.

Prices in choice locations in the Central Business District, however, are still holding given the limited supply and the profile of owners, mostly deep-pocketed investors that are happy to continue renting out their premises if they cannot reap significant capital appreciation.

CBRE’s analysis of URA Realis data shows that 101 caveats have been lodged for shophouse transactions so far this year totalling S$548 million, down from 206 caveats adding up to S$1.27 billion in 2013.

In the first half of last year, S$922 million worth of shophouses changed hands; however the onset of the total debt servicing ratio (TDSR) framework in late-June 2013 has caused some buyers to hold back their purchase plans.

Shophouse sales slipped to S$347 milion in the second half of 2013 before easing further to S$277 million in H1 this year and S$271 million so far this half. However, these figures do not include deals involving sales of shares in special purpose vehicle companies that own shophouse assets, since caveats are typically not lodged for such deals. An example would be a S$50 million sale of a row of five shophouses in the CBD this year.

A shophouse in Boat Quay is understood to have been sold recently for S$9.5 million – which has not been caveated.

Owners who want to sell shophouses may have had to clip their pricing expectations, say property agents, but actual transacted prices have been resilient in districts 1 and 2, where the choicest conservation shophouse stock is located, such as Telok Ayer Street, Club Street, Amoy Street, Chinatown, Duxton Hill and Tanjong Pagar.

Sammi Lim, CBRE associate director, investment properties, said: “Despite the decrease in the number of transactions compared with pre-TDSR, shophouse prices have remained resilient and in fact we are still observing an overall increase in capital values in choice locations. Current transacted prices in districts 1 and 2 in the CBD are in the range of S$2,200 psf to S$2,500 psf of gross floor area (GFA) on average – depending on land tenure – compared with S$1,800-2,200 psf around May or June last year before TDSR.”

Knight Frank executive director, investment, Mary Sai also said that transacted prices in Telok Ayer and Chinatown locations are around S$2,500 psf of GFA – surpassing the S$2,000-2,100 psf in Q1 last year. “Prices of conservation shophouses in the Central Area and Little India have held firm – defying our expectations of a price softening in the aftermath of TDSR and the Little India riot last December.

“However, shophouse prices outside the Central Area in places such as Geylang, East Coast and Upper Serangoon have softened about 5-10 per cent (post-TDSR).”

Simon Monteiro, director at Historical Land, a boutique property agency specialising in shophouses, observed that “those who are selling shophouses currently are the ones looking to divest a few small shophouses in various locations and replacing them with a bigger investment, for example, a row of shophouses; or some investors who just want to cash out now for retirement reasons”.

Even after the TDSR rollout, a few investors have managed to realise attractive gains from shophouses. For example, a property in Peck Seah Street was acquired in March last year for S$12.2 million and resold four months later (before the completion of the sale) for S$16.8 million before being flipped again in October the same year for S$20.5 million.

Such cases are rare though. Most of those making sizeable gains have longer holding periods. For instance, a property on Tras Street that was sold two months ago for S$11.15 million had previously changed hands for S$7.1 million in May 2012 and prior to that for S$5 million in July 2010, according to caveats data.

Mr Monteiro notes that most shophouses are held by ultra high net worth (UHNW) owners with very good holding power. “For them to sell, the values must double or more.”

Agreeing, Knight Frank executive director (investment) Mary Sai, said: “There are owners telling us: ‘If I don’t get my price, I’ll just rent it out.”

Yields on shophouses have declined as rental increases have not kept pace with the jumps in capital values.

“Net yields today are around 2-2.5 per cent on average on commercial shophouses in Districts 1 and 2,” said Ms Sai. “In Q1 2013, they used to be 3-3.5 per cent.”

Mr Monteiro said that current sub-3 per cent yields are “rather unattractive to investors”. “If you are a serious seller, you may have to lower your price expectations to allow the yield to the buyer to be 3-3.5 per cent. Only then will you see interest.”

Industry players note that buyers are also factoring in expected increases in borrowing costs.

Ms Sai said that a common strategy by landlords is to lease out the ground floor to a food and beverage (F&B) outlet or as a showroom, and find office tenants for the uppper floors.

The increase in Grade A office rents has helped to prop up office rents in shophouses.

“Landlords try to maximise their rental returns by having one tenant per floor to avoid having to give a bulk discount to a single tenant occupying the whole building,” Ms Sai added.

Investors that acquired shophouses more than five years ago would be able to comfortably service their mortgage from rental collection as their purchase price would be much lower than current values, she said. “But those who bought 1-2 years ago, I think, to their horror, some of them find they cannot push up the rental much if the rent at the point when they bought their property was already quite peakish. If they trigger any further increases, their tenants may not find it sustainable to continue business at the location.”

On the other hand, Zain Fancy, founder and director of Clifton Real Estate, which owns more than a dozen shophouses in Singapore, pointed out that it is still possible to spot good investment opportunities. “A lot of shophouses are under-rented; their owners have not spruced up the properties in years. So there is a value proposition here.

“By renovating properties, rents go up and hence prices increase. From the tenants’ perspective, renting space in a shophouse can be attractive. For instance, we’re leasing ground floor retail space at Pagoda Street, a location with very high foot traffic, at S$17-18 psf a month – a discount to the S$35-40 psf for ground floor space in an Orchard Road mall.

“We have leased an upper-level office floor (of about 1,200 sq ft) in one of our CBD shophouses at S$8 psf, so that’s about S$10,000 monthly rent – and they get their own toilet and pantry. The occupier is new to Singapore and was previously operating out of a serviced office, paying about S$5,000 a month for a space of about 100 sq ft.”

Ms Sai too noted that the average shophouse office rent in the CBD of about S$6-6.50 psf a month is lower than the double-digit rents in Grade A office buildings.

Street-level F&B space has been the key driver for growth of shophouse rents, noted Mr Monteiro. “There has been an influx of cafes and restaurants in conservation shophouses in the CBD for example in the Duxton, Keong Saik and Gemmill Lane locales, for instance, in the past four or five years.”

Currently, approval from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for “eating houses”, the planning term for F&B use, is granted on Temporary Permission of one to three years.

However, Mr Monteiro cautions that “that there may come a time when, to maintain a mix of trades in the conservation districts, URA may limit approvals for F&B use in shophouses even in the CBD”. This could potentially cause a reversal of interest in commmercial shophouses, he added.

Another reason for thinning of shophouse transactions is that some property investors have been moving away from the Singapore scene in search of higher yields, say agents.

Still, Singapore shophouses have their attractions. “Funds and UHNW investors, mainly foreigners, are among the buyers,” said Mr Monteiro. Investors switching from the residential segment, which has been hit by cooling measures, also find commercial shophouses an attractive alternative. There are no restrictions on foreign ownership of shophouses on sites fully zoned commercial.

Ms Sai points out that despite the already sharp price appreciation, a shophouse investor paying, say, S$2,500 to S$2,800 psf on GFA in the CBD will feel comforted knowing that it is still cheaper than the S$3,000-4,000 psf on average for new strata retail units in city-fringe locations and at least S$3,000 psf for new strata offices in the financial district.

Agents say that prices of shophouses in districts 1 and 2 will continue to be supported by the fact that they are mostly well located – in the business district and near an MRT station.

There is also an increase in demand from end-users looking to buy and occupy a shophouse for their own business instead of leasing it out, said CBRE’s Ms Lim. “These properties are a limited-edition asset class as they are designed with a distinctive facade, possess a unique charm and are steeped in history. Shophouses will continue to be highly sought after. Transaction values and volumes are projected to increase about 10 per cent in 2015.”

Ms Sai too expects the pricing outlook for districts 1 and 2 shophouses to remain resilient next year. “But other areas including Little India (District 8) and non-central locations may succumb to the impact of TDSR and the economic situation.”

Turning civic district into a walkable park – minus cars

Cementing a bold vision laid out in an urban master plan last year, the authorities here said work has started to reclaim the city’s civic district from the car.

The area around the Padang – encompassing landmarks like Victoria Theatre, the National Gallery and Esplanade Park – will be turned into “a walkable park” within an “arts, culture and lifestyle precinct”, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.The area around the Padang – encompassing landmarks like Victoria Theatre, the National Gallery and Esplanade Park – will be turned into “a walkable park” within an “arts, culture and lifestyle precinct”, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

“Our civic district is full of history, memories, monuments and beauties,” the minister wrote on his blog yesterday. “Over the years, huge assets have been assembled there, but their full potential is not being realised.”

To unleash this potential, traffic access to the area will be crimped, with roads like Empress Place paved over and Connaught Drive accessible only to buses and coaches. One side of the historic Anderson Bridge will be converted to a footpath.

Most of the reconstruction – which will cost $66 million – will be completed in phases next year, in time for the various SG50 celebrations. For instance, part of Fullerton Road will be realigned to free up more lawn space in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum. Likewise, a more spacious walkway will be built along St Andrew’s Road. These will be ready by next July.

Work has already started to remove kerbside parking spaces in Connaught Drive. The stretch will be paved and landscaped so people can walk, jog, cycle and skate there. Along the edge of the Singapore River, where Queen Elizabeth Walk sits, a stepped plaza will be built to bring the public closer to the water.

Harking back to the days when the area was a favourite haunt for courting couples, five Angsana trees will be planted in Esplanade Park near Anderson Bridge. They mark the spot where five such trees stood, up to 1990.

To mark SG50, an 8km Jubilee Walk will connect attractions in the area, with trail markers to tell stories of Singapore’s progress.

The transformation plan is reminiscent of similar moves by cities elsewhere to claw back road space.

San Francisco did away with the Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged by an earthquake in 1989. In its place, a wide boardwalk now fronts the bay, frequented by joggers, cyclists and those who want respite from the city.

About 10 years ago, Seoul tore down a highway to uncover the Cheonggyecheon river and create an oasis in the city.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng gave the plan the thumbs up. “It allows residents and visitors a greater opportunity to immerse in the city and to enjoy the city,” he said. “We should have more of this.”

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Artistes started new cafe in Chinatown

Mama shop

Felicia Chin and Sora Ma are now officially cafe owners, in addition to their day jobs as MediaCorp artistes.

They have joined forces to set up The Mama Shop, a retro-themed space in the former Police Operational Headquarters at 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace. The cafe serves up burgers, waffles and old-school drinks like iced kopi and sparkling limau.

The Mama Shop’s opening ceremony was held on Monday night, complete with a festive lion dance and celebrity guests including Pierre Png, Jesseca Liu, Dennis Chew, Michelle Chong, Pornsak, and Zheng Geping and family.

“It’s a small start but I think it’s a place for friends and to meet new people,” Chin said. “It’s called Mama Shop because there’s a personal touch to it — it’s not pretentious. I chanced upon this location and I thought it’s away from everybody else. It’s like a personal kind of private area for your friends and it’s quite quiet; it’s not amongst the crowds. Sometimes, good things have to be looked for.”

The business has been a personal effort for both Chin and Ma, both 30. “When it comes to acting, you only need to make sure your scenes are done well,” said Ma. “But when it comes to business, there are a lot of things you have to know. Felicia and I are in charge of marketing and PR but we have to know, for example, where the food comes from and how to pair it. Everything on the menu, we’ve experimented with more than ten times.”

She added: “It feels like I’ve been promoted!”