Challenges for large projects in the Klang Valley

When the mass rapid transit is operational in a year or two, its impact on the movement of people will be even more obvious.

The pockets of large integrated development in Brickfields, Bangsar and Damansara Heights in the Klang Valley bear some interesting aspects. It is as much a glance into the past as a glimpse into the future. Among the three projects taking place today – KL Sentral, KL Eco City and Pusat Bandar Damansara - the biggest would be the 72-acre KL Sentral in Brickfields. It will be near completion this year.

The principle of building a large development and a township are fairly similar, but each has a set defined objective. Tun Razak Exchange, for example, is a financial district but we will not delve into it today. You can add in a hospital or a university with each feeding on the other. So there can be many types of integrated developments and the properties there will be different, says Malaysia Shopping Malls Association adviser H. M. Chan.

While there is no formula that fits all, there are certain pre-requisties, says Chan.

Accessibility and connectivity, land scapes and green scapes are important features. Likewise, natural sunlight and covered and shaded walkways. Access refers to whether one can get there easily. Connectivity refers to the flow of people and vehicles within that development, according to Chan.

The three developments have several common denominators, namely public rail transport, retail malls, offices, serviced apartments and hotels. But while developers can build and sell, will its occupation be pleasant?

The emphasis

The emphasis in KL Sentral seems to its interchange station and its 15 million sq ft of office space. In Pusat Bandar Damansara, it is very likely to be the Pavilion Damansara mall.

At KL Eco City, the emphasis also seems to offices although the developer would like to consider it as a place to live, learn, work and play.

Using KL Sentral as a model to improve the process of city urbanisation, it is worthwhile to take a trip to KL Sentral by rail and continue to one’s destination by foot.

How pleasant has that walk been? And if you prefer the flexibity of driving, how easy has it been to park your car?

While these are issues that developers and authorities gave little thought to, stepping into the shoes of a pedestrian can be enlightening. It is worthwhile, therefore, to use KL Sentral for the other two work-in-progress developments.

Going into a minimum of 25 acres, these urban developments are big in terms of impact, money and value.

Town planner Ahmad Jefri Clyde from Garis Architect says all three are transit-oriented developments. A transit oriented development involves a series of destinations where people hop on and hop off along the way.

“The issue then is, after you have hopped off, is the walking experience to your destination appealing?”

Chan says access refers to whether one can get to a development easily while connectivity refers to the flow of people and vehicles within that development.

The pedestrian

As the city urbanises and public transport become more widely used, the quality of the walking experience has to be addressed, in terms of both safety and other issues.

Are the footpath even and wide enough? Are there covered walkways as sun and rain are in abundance here?

Clyde says people can generally walk a very long distance if the journey is pleasant. Little parks, incidental parks and open spaces make the journey pleasant if there is security.

However, judging KL Sentral from the point of an urban designer, the pedestrian has been given little thought. This is obvious when walkways narrow until one has to walk in a single-file before spilling onto the road and into the on-coming traffic.

Clyde says vehicular traffic “overwhelms” in KL Sentral when the “pedestrian should be the king.” Because KL Sentral’s emphasis is public transport, the logical conclusion would be a sea of pedestrians.

“The quality of the walking experience has to be addressed,” he says.

Once an urban project has high pedestrian volume, he should be the king (of the road). That means investing more on pedestrian infrastructure like footpaths, walkways and little parks and open spaces. The place per se is not a problem, it is the design, its location and functionality, says Clyde.

“It has to be a door-to-door experience, not just the train journey, or the people will revert to driving. Do other cities get it right the first time? No, they all adjust.”

Clyde says KL Sentral is the country’s first attempt to do transit-oriented developments.

“It can be done better. And it is time for an upgrade,” he says. The way buildings are designed is also part of pedestrian profiling.

There is a big emphasis on the front entrances with several parking lots are reserved for the top management of a company while other workers would have to walk long distances to their office.

“In the west, the situation is more egalitarian. Everybody walks. And the front of the building is just as important as the back, and sometimes the sides as well.

“Facilitate the movement of people through the building. In a complex integrated development, the pedestrian should be like water. They should be able to flow, or permeated through everything to reach their destination. They should not be made to walk around buildings in order to get to the front.”

The issue is, who is responsible for this? From the developer’s point of view, will the first developer know what the developer next door is building? Both may be building at different times. Authorities need to be pro-active. This is quite common in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and is all part and parcel of urban design.

Clyde says when the mass rapid transit is operational in a year or two, its impact on the movement of people will be even more obvious.

“Then you will see the pedestrian,” he says.

The KL Sentral situation is just a microcosm of the larger needs of urban integrated developments. But it brings into focus what needs to be done today in KL Eco City and Pusat Bandar Damansara.

There need to be a lot more detailing.

The mall factor

The other common denominator is malls. Malaysia Shopping Malls Association’s adviser Chan says although there is public rail transport, there is a need for parking spaces. “In the immediate future, I expect car ownership in Malaysia to be very high, unlike Singapore and Hong Kong. So the provision of a car park at an average cost of RM100,000 a bay – whether it is in the basement or in the super structure – is a service. The money can be made from other types of space – be it hotel, serviced apartment or office – with the car park as part of the facilities,” says Chan.

Clyde says people can generally walk a very long distance if the journey is pleasant.

Sometimes there is a need to build ramps or tunnels instead of navigating around buildings.

These are the service infrastructure investment which adds value to the development. Chan, who is also the CEO for Sunway Shopping Malls and Theme Parks in the Sunway Group says in any big parcel of land or more than 15 acres, a retail development is an integral part.

Chan says a retail mall offer the highest return on investment than all other forms of space, from his experience managing the mall.

“This is the trend today,” he says.

In the Klang Valley, there is an over supply of office space.

In retail, you can an average of RM10 per sq ft. In KLCC office space, you may be able to get RM12 and more per sq ft. In that context, the mall is still the most profitable. This may explain why big developers are moving into retail mall projects, says Chan.

Using China as an example, Chan says developers started first with housing before building their first mall, or their first hotel. It is as much a sign of progress as an organic growth of a city.

It is also part of the climate of today’s investment principles. Property development involves building and selling. Property investment involves building, maintaining and collecting rent.

“As more developers enter the market, the margin (of profit) drops. That is why they move into investments. A mall offers a fairly strong recurring income annually and a big mall can make up to RM200mil a year.

You don’t need to sell RM2bil in order to get your RM300mil, and the income is secured for three plus three years, based on leasing arrangements here, says Chan, adding that Malaysian malls have done incredibly well being ranked fourth in 2012 and 2013 after New York, London, Tokyo.

Hence, the management of shoppers in a mall is parallel to managing the pedestrian traffic in an urban project. - By The Star