12 Apr 2018

Once a magnet for global tourists and regional shoppers, Orchard Road is today losing its draw as stores along the world-famous shopping belt battle disruption from online shopping to overseas shopping.

But help is on the way: the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Singapore Tourism Board last week awarded the tender to Singapore-based Cistri to undertake a thorough study of the issues involved and come up with recommendations to set the tone for Orchard Road’s development blueprint for the next 15 to 20 years.

The firm – an international off-shoot set up two years ago by Australian urban development research and consultancy Urbis, Cistri’s parent company – beat 10 other contenders which included players that have operated here for much longer.

For a start, Cistri is roping in multi-discipline partners to widen the skills and perspectives for its six-month study. The consortium includes DP Architects, Arup, Future Cities Laboratory, DataSpark and Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB).

Cistri’s parent itself has over 50 years of experience in offering property economics advice to clients located in and investing in Asia and the Middle East.

Cistri regional director Peter Hyland, who has been in urban planning for over 35 years, said the firm brings to the table very strong knowledge of both local and international retail economics.

“This is a project that requires diverse thinking and international experience,” Mr Hyland noted. “One of our qualities is that we are very good in working with multi-disciplinary teams and bringing out the right findings.”

Mr Hyland pointed out that DP Architects has played a significant role in shaping Orchard Road’s present form, while Arup brings an international perspective on transport infrastructure.

RLB offers global expertise in project cost assessment, while Future Cities Laboratory – set up by ETH-Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation – has insights into trends and innovations in urban sustainability.

As for DataSpark, the mobility intelligence company of Singtel has an unmatched library of mobility insights. This will enable the team to learn how people move through Orchard Road and identify broader behavioural patterns, Mr Hyland added.

The tender award to Cistri sets in motion the business study on Orchard Road as the government seeks to implement an actionable blueprint to strengthen Orchard Road’s positioning, offerings and visitor experience.

In an exclusive interview with The Business Times, both Mr Hyland and Cistri director Jack Backen did not want to be drawn into making swift observations about Orchard Road, flagging that it is vital to first sift out the noises.

“Our approach is very much to diagnose the problems there first and not jump to the solutions,” said Mr Backen, who has 13 years of urban consultancy experience after working as an economist in Australia’s public and private sector.

“There are many people talking about what’s wrong, what’s right, but we need to know which issues are real, which are not real, and which issues should be taken seriously,” he added. It is also not about replicating in Singapore everything that works overseas.

“Every shopping mall owner needs to think about the specifics of their market and understand the dimensions of their market – who these people are and why they might come.”

Undoubtedly, Singapore’s retail market has gone through a rough patch in recent years. But Mr Backen noted that it remains fundamentally sound.

Singapore is still one of the top two, if not three, key markets in the region – including Hong Kong and Shanghai – where retailers from the West would choose to start with in Asia, though there are rising alternatives such as Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok.

“E-commerce is something people talk about a lot. We think e-commerce needs to be seen in perspective,” Mr Backen said, adding that there are other changes in consumers’spending patterns such as shopping overseas.

Experiential retail is another big idea, with landlords still experimenting with it. Mr Backen is confident that in the long-term, Orchard Road “will work through the issues and remain a good market for retailers and shopping centre owners”.

In the next six months, Cistri will get into the full swing of consumer research to draw feedback from the community, engaging retailers and landlords to understand what their views are, before diagnosing the problems and making recommendations.

“Orchard Road holds a very important place in Singapore, which is why it is important to go through this process and get it right,” Mr Backen said. But he added that the proposed changes, which will stem from issues gleaned from the study, may not necessarily have to be dramatic for what is “still an active well-positioned street”.

With such a major project under its belt, Cistri is on an expansion mode. Its Singapore staff strength of 16 is slated to grow to 22 by the end of this year and 30 by next year. It is on track to reach a headcount of 50 here by 2022. While it is opening an office in Hong Kong next month, Singapore will remain the head office for the international business of Urbis Australia.

In Australia, Urbis employs close to 600 staff across key cities, with core expertise in urban planning, property economics, urban design master-planning and broader property advisory. The private group is owned by about 45 equity partners, including Mr Hyland and Mr Backen, who are based in Singapore.

Despite its short operating history in Singapore, its relationship with developers here runs deeper. The group has undertaken work for Pontiac Land, Far East Organisation, Frasers Property and Wee Hur in Australia, as well as Australia’s Lendlease for its projects in Singapore and Malaysia. It has also conducted analyses for retail landlords including CapitaLand.

So far, Cistri has undertaken over 50 projects, with 20 per cent in Singapore and the rest in other ASEAN countries, the Middle East, China, Japan and India. Since the opening of its Singapore office in 2016, Urbis’ overseas business has grown 2.5 times in terms of fees and number of projects, accounting for 2.5 per cent of group turnover, Mr Hyland said.

Urbis Australia group has been growing at 10-15 per cent annually with turnover set to cross A$100 million (S$101 million) in fiscal 2018 ending June 30.

Mr Hyland added: “We have very strong belief that good urban planning and good master planning has to be informed by good economics.”

But some global cities have fallen into the trap of speculative development that is based on master planning rather than demand, Mr Backen observed. “We hope to see more people thinking about the market and what drives successful master plans and successful cities.”

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.