It is difficult to imagine what life looks like in the future.
Old movies often predicted flying cars and floating cities, which is not yet our reality today. Especially in a world struck by a pandemic, there is no telling when and how plans get shaken up. However, it is safe to say that to a large extent, the fate of our world lies in the hands of the people who build and shape it.
For Cheng Hsing Yao, the newly appointed CEO of real estate developer GuocoLand, the city of the future is one rooted in community, with a focus on flexible spaces, wellness and sustainability. Having served the company for about a decade now, the 50-year-old was most recently the group managing director for GuocoLand Singapore before stepping into this new role overseeing the group in Singapore, Malaysia and China.
Prior to joining GuocoLand, he was with the Singapore public service for about 15 years and held leadership positions at the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where he contributed to projects like Marina Bay and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. Outside of GuocoLand, Cheng is also a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), a board member of the National Parks Board, co- chairman of the Integrated Digital Delivery Steering Committee and the Central Procurers Panel at the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), and a member of the Digitalising Built Environment Alliance for Action under the Emerging Stronger Taskforce set up in response to Covid-19. In addition, he is a member of URA’s Design Advisory Committee as well as Heritage and Identity Partnership.
Being tasked with such an extensive portfolio has enabled Cheng to take a more innovative approach at GuocoLand. “My other roles have really enriched me and forced me to look into many other issues that are not directly related to my job, which opens my eyes and mind to what’s going on in society and I carry this into my work,” he says, adding that he makes social and environmental issues a big topic of conversation in his internal discussions and management meetings. “These things are important because, as developers, we are building for the future. The decisions I make today must be relevant at least for the next five years and hopefully in the long run.”
Guoco Midtown, the latest mega mixed-use development by GuocoLand, aims to not just stay relevant, but also revolutionise and demonstrate what a city of the future looks like in Singapore. Located on a premium land parcel bound by Beach Road and Tan Quee Lan Street, the 3.2ha development comprises a 30-storey office tower with 770,000 sq ft of Grade A office space, three retail clusters, two condominiums – Midtown Bay and Midtown Modern – and a five-storey Network Hub building, which is a purpose-built business and social networking hub.
The concept of the mega development was formed on emerging trends and principles of sustainability and new ways of working and living, forecasted even before the pandemic hit. “We formed these visions before Covid-19 but since then, we haven’t gone very far off track. In fact, what the pandemic has done is that it accelerated many of these trends like flexibility of workspace, working from home, and also the emphasis on wellness,” says Cheng.
A “Core and Flex” office concept at Guoco Midtown redefines the traditional office leasing model by providing tenants with more cost- effective and flexible options of long-term dedicated office space (core) as well as shorter-term dedicated offices (flex) for special project teams and situations requiring shorter-term offices. As the lines between home, work and play blur, Midtown Bay was designed to enable fluidity in the use of space. The two- and three-bedroom duplex units allow owners to use the lower floor as a home office or for entertaining, while keeping the upper floor for private residential use. All residents can also join as members of the Network Hub and make use of the amenities provided. “This flexible home office concept will suit entrepreneurs and smaller companies who also want to be part of the larger commercial ecosystem in Guoco Midtown,” he adds.
A prominent feature of Guoco Midtown is the integration of gardens and landscaping to create a lush, tranquil sanctuary in the city. “In addition to its environmental benefits, we look at it from a user’s perspective because we all work very hard in Singapore and want to come home to a little nature and escape,” Cheng elaborates. The development has over 20 conceptual and thematic gardens and green public spaces – all spanning about 3.8ha for office workers, residents and the public to enjoy.
Heart of the city
More than just its success as a project, Cheng says a larger objective for Guoco Midtown is to bring about transformation of the Beach Road-Bugis neighbourhood, just like how Guoco Tower repositioned Tanjong Pagar to become a vibrant, prime office and residential district over the last five years. The mixed-use development on Wallich Street has done tremendously well, maintaining 99 to 100 per cent tenancy even in the midst of a pandemic. “The interest from tenants wanting to be in Guoco Tower has always been very strong, so likewise, we are very confident that Guoco Midtown will do well,” he asserts.
“From Guoco Tower, we learnt that many tech and innovation-oriented companies appreciate a mixed- use, vibrant environment because they want a stimulating lifestyle. That’s why when we recognised the inherent vibrancy in the Beach Road-Bugis area, we knew it would be excellent to infuse it with a top-grade MNC-oriented office and mixed-use development.”
In fact, Cheng explains that the inspiration for the name Guoco Midtown comes from Midtown Manhattan in New York City, the largest central business district in the world. He refers to how Midtown used to be a mostly tourist area, but then transformed into a vibrant district after big corporations started moving in during the 2000s. “This is the kind of the vision that we have for the area.”
In transforming the neighbourhood, he also hopes to contribute to it and build a community by taking a more holistic approach, even if that means having to prioritise over profit in some cases. While there are exclusive spaces for the residents and tenants, there are many open and public spaces that invite inclusivity. “We invest a lot in the public spaces, gardens and such that cannot make money, and in fact we have to invest more money to do those things. But we want to make it open, porous and comfortable for everyone to come. This is how we always approach our mixed-use developments and that is our contribution to the neighbourhood.”
Similarly at Guoco Tower, there are public spaces that could have been built into buildings, but left open. “If I had a maximisation mindset, I would build and sell that space. But we didn’t and in the end, it worked out very well because many of our tenants, even CEOs and chairmen, have told me they really love the public space and garden,” he adds.
In recent times of dine-in restrictions, the space has also been well used by members of public for picnics. “I think it shows that if we adopt a broader frame of mind and more holistic perspective of development, we can uplift the neighbourhood and in doing that, we also get uplifted and become the social centre. It’s good for everybody.”
At Midtown Modern, a large proportion of units are bigger – about 50 per cent are three- and four-bedroom apartments, which is rare for the downtown area where most condominiums have more one- and two-bedders. “In the short term, building one- and two-bedroom units is a no-brainer because they will definitely sell. But we want to bring in families and larger households to build a more residential and less transient community, which is more attractive in the long run. We chose the harder path but we are looking at a longer horizon.”
He is confident that Guoco Midtown will also appeal to affluent buyers who are looking for a new kind of luxury; one that represents their identity. “We foresee that Guoco Midtown will be a very exciting, forward- thinking community of people from the office tenants to those who are living there. It will be a dynamic mix of innovative companies, corporates as well as people who choose to break conventions and live downtown instead of in residential areas. They will be like-minded, open-minded and visionary. It is not so much the physical things that will define the character of Guoco Midtown, but this community.”
(Main and featured image credits: Photography: Alecia Neo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Grooming: Benedict Choo)
This story appeared in the July 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore/Luxe Living.