Dover Forest opens up wider debate on land and housing

22 Feb 2021

Straits Times, 22 Feb 2021, Dover Forest opens up wider debate on land and housing
Would anyone want to live right next to a noisy train track? For Dover resident Kelvin Leong, the answer - and the choice between clearing a shady forest around an MRT station or building on empty plots of land in nearby Ghim Moh, for the same objective of new public housing - is clear.

The vacant sites, highlighted by the area's MP Christopher de Souza on Feb 1 in a parliamentary motion to preserve Dover Forest, sit around the popular Ghim Moh market and food centre.

There is a bus terminal, Ulu Pandan Community Club and Star Vista shopping mall close by, Mr Leong, 41, pointed out.

Residents like him, property analysts and urban planners were largely supportive of alternative ideas that have been made in recent weeks, following concern over announcements in December that some Build-To-Order (BTO) flats would be launched this year in Ulu Pandan, where the forest is located.

The Housing Board also sought feedback on an environment baseline study of the area, which it noted was largely zoned for residential use. The ensuing attention from green groups and MPs prompted National Development Minister Desmond Lee to address the issue in Parliament, and to extend the public consultation period by four weeks till March 1.

Speaking at the same sitting, Mr de Souza proposed building BTO flats in empty lots next to Ulu Pandan CC, at the former Raffles Junior College campus and a field next to the defunct Ghim Moh Primary School instead. He told The Straits Times he had identified these land parcels after consulting residents during home visits.

Said the MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC since 2006: "Why fell a forest if there are vacant plots of land within the very ward I serve?"

His suggestions included using the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) to demolish older Ghim Moh blocks built in 1976 and to rehouse those residents in new flats next to the CC. The land on which the Sers blocks stood could then be used for BTO flats.

Dr Harvey Neo, programme head at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said Mr de Souza's mention of Sers distracted from an otherwise commendable proposal.

"To most citizens, being chosen for Sers is a likely windfall," Dr Neo noted. "Had the forest been cleared for housing, presumably all the units would be available to every Singaporean. Mr de Souza's suggestion would likely have fewer units for non-Dover residents, since a portion would be reserved for (residents from) the flats he recommended for Sers."

ERA Realty's head of research and consultancy Nicholas Mak said that while feasible as an option, implementing Sers could incur more costs for the Government.

After their flats are acquired under Sers, owners are given a choice to move to a new home with a new 99-year lease, as well as a compensation package with rehousing benefits. "Sending in bulldozers to Dover Forest is cheaper," said Mr Mak.

He added that it seemed like the "writing has been on the wall" for Dover Forest's development, since the eponymous MRT station was built in 2001.

Mr Mak pointed out that this took place 11 years after the East-West MRT line was completed in 1990, which was also 11 years after Singapore Polytechnic moved to its current Dover location in 1979.

"It would have been cheaper and more convenient to build Dover MRT station while the line was under construction, than to do it after the line was operational," he said. "I think when they built the station, they planned to tear down the forest eventually, to recover the infrastructure investment."

Noting that the area was re-zoned shortly after, in 2003, for residential use, Mr Mak added: "The best way, the most economically expedient way to do that, is to sell the land around the MRT station and to develop that area."

Dover resident Sydney Cheong has been at the forefront of the pushback, starting a petition last month which as at weekend had drawn more than 42,000 signatures in support of protecting the forest.

"There are still many options that the Government should look at before they exploit the forest,' the 52-year-old reiterated.

Other alternatives proposed by the Nature Society (Singapore) include the old site of the Warren Golf and Country Club off Dover Road, as well as a large open patch opposite Fairfield Methodist Primary School.

Professor Stephen Cairns, director of the Future Cities Laboratory at the Singapore-ETH Centre, said an "acupunctural" approach to urban design could help bring all these smaller, scattered alternative sites into a healthy relationship with Dover Forest and the estate at large, without compromising larger strategic planning goals.

This would entail focusing on sites with the potential for catalytic effects locally, said Prof Cairns - a suggestion aligned with Mr de Souza's proposal to keep the market and food centre at the heart of Ghim Moh.

Mr de Souza told ST: "The vacant plots of land next to the CC are ideal for development. If used in a deliberately phased fashion, it could be a catalysis for a rejuvenated Ghim Moh town."

International Property Advisor's chief executive Ku Swee Yong said that more importantly, the Government should address the fundamentals of the issue: If there truly was a shortage of land for residential needs specifically; the trajectory of Singapore's population growth or decline; and why major upcoming projects in areas such as the Greater Southern Waterfront and Paya Lebar Airbase remain inadequate, such that a "tiny" 33ha forest has to be removed.

The core purpose of HDB housing has also emerged as a side issue of the debate over whether to keep the forest. With its location in prime District 10 as well as the mature Queenstown estate, some have argued that Dover Forest could be a location that would be less about providing affordable housing than investment and ultimately, profitability.

After the December announcement of impending BTO launches in Ulu Pandan, property websites were quick to talk up their potential as million-dollar "windfall" resale candidates.

Savills Singapore's executive director of research and consultancy Alan Cheong said: "HDB should focus on its role as a provider of housing in areas where the private sector fails to function. If central banks have a primary objective to rein in inflation, then HDB is its avatar that plays that role of maintaining house price stability."

"If HDB anticipates that building flats on sites with unique selling points (USPs) can drive up prices, then it should avoid acting. Dover Forest definitely has USPs because it is located adjacent to prime private residential estates. So if it realises this, should it then build on it?"

Like Mr Ku, he asked if there was, whether now or in the foreseeable future, a pressing need to develop the forest.

Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences cautioned against a piecemeal approach to resolving the issue.

"It's not just Dover Forest, it's not just adjacent plots of land, but what is the bigger game plan: How much do we want to redevelop the neighbourhood, and make more intensive use of the land?

"Because it's a different landscape compared to 20, 30 years ago when we had a younger population and economic imperatives were more urgent... So there's got to be a more sustainable approach."