Johor Baru’s city centre is well known to many Singaporeans as a vibrant, low-cost shopping and eating destination just across the Causeway.
But the precinct, with its haphazard streets and ageing malls, is showing its age – and lags behind slick new neighbouring areas like Iskandar Puteri and Danga Bay.
This is set to change in the next few years, as plans to rejuvenate the area have been set in motion, beginning with the Ibrahim International Business District (IIBD).
The RM20 billion (S$6.48 billion) plan, launched in November 2015, aims to transform the city centre into an international business district over the next decade by improving infrastructure.
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Last Tuesday, the first public infrastructure project to improve accessibility through pedestrian bridges was unveiled.
A 268m link bridge will connect JB Sentral railway station and bus terminal to Persada Annexe, an extension of the existing Persada Convention Centre, which is part of Coronation Square. Construction has not yet begun, but the bridge is expected to be be completed and operational by the end of next year.
A flyover will also stretch from the Tebrau Corridor, an up-and-coming area east of JB city centre into the city, connecting it to IIBD and Coronation Square.
The jewel of the IIBD is the upcoming Coronation Square, which will have six towers and is being developed by Coronade Properties. With a gross development value of RM3 billion, the project will feature two office blocks, two condominium and serviced apartment towers, a hotel and a tower for medical suites.
Construction started in January on three of the towers: the medical suites tower, one office block and one residential tower, estimated to have 480 high-end units.
A Coronade Properties spokesman said the company has “robust financials” and is optimistic about sales, despite the perception of oversupply in Johor. The firm is so bullish that it is building the residential tower even before selling any unit – mainly given its prime location in the heart of the city centre.
The spokesman added that even with Iskandar Puteri’s growth, “there is no issue with having two city centres”. “Logically, when you have linkages to cities, these gateway cities tend to do well… the traditional city centre has been around for a long time, and it is opportune for it to be revitalised,” he said.
While one developer is building an international business district, another wants to build Johor’s new central business district.
Mainboard-listed Astaka Holdings launched its RM5.4 billion development One Bukit Senyum in 2013, which it expects to complete by 2021. Located at the crossroads of the Tebrau expressway and Jalan Lingkaran Dalam in the city centre, the development will house Johor Bahru City Council’s new headquarters, an office building, a five-star hotel, a shopping mall and residences.
Its first phase of development is residential: The Astaka, comprising two towers which will be 65 storeys and 70 storeys tall, has a total of 438 units and will be completed next year. More than 300 units have been sold; Singaporeans make up 55 per cent of buyers.
While many are bullish on the city centre’s prospects, some projects have had to change course amid the rapid changes in the region.
Rowsley, a firm controlled by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, has tweaked its plans. Its Vantage Bay project was in 2015 repositioned from a residential, office and retail project into a healthcare hub.
Mr Ho Kiam Kheong, Rowsley’s executive director and managing director for real estate, said the firm is working with Thomson Medical on the healthcare project.
Meanwhile, Rowsley opened a cluster of food outlets and a pharmacy at Vantage Bay last November which has helped “to earn some recurring income from the rental of space to tenants”, he said.
RESIDENTIAL UNITS STILL A DRAW
Singaporeans have long been drawn to residential properties across the Causeway. Despite oversupply concerns, with Savills Malaysia projecting a pipeline of over 37,000 high-rise city centre units this year, developers are banking on greater Singapore-Malaysia connectivity to drive sales.
JB’s city centre is also poised for a boost by the end of this year, when a deal for a cross-border MRT system is expected to be inked. Passengers will be able to clear immigration in JB, hop on the rapid transit system to Singapore, and transfer seamlessly to the MRT.
Little wonder then that residential development is in full swing.
Princess Cove Residences, perched on the coastline and boasting a 700m walkway to the checkpoint, expects occupiers very soon. Its developer, Guangzhou-based R&F Properties, will hand over keys for three towers to about 1,600 home owners by the end of this year, while another four towers are expected to be completed next year.
Further afield in Danga Bay, there were rumours of China’s largest state-owned property developer Greenland Jade Palace cancelling its Jade Palace project.
A Greenland spokesman told The Straits Times that construction was halted in February, following a visit from the firm’s top management last August. The management decided to change some of the building’s design and these designs are pending approval, she said. The sales gallery is also under renovation.
The original design had been for 13 high-rise towers, comprising about 2,000 units, but the designs of 10 towers will be tweaked, she said. About 30 per cent of the units have been sold, which means that these units will have to be completed by mid-2019, she added.
Next door to Jade Palace, buyers have been heading to the massive 9,400-unit Country Garden Danga Bay in anticipation of getting their keys in two to three months’ time.
One of them, 46-year-old Singaporean businessman Alan Aw, said he is unperturbed by reports of oversupply and falling rental yields as he intends to use his apartment with a sea view as a weekend home.
He bought his two-bedroom unit for about RM700 per sq ft. He believes he will see appreciation in the long term, although he said he would not buy property in Malaysia for investment only.
Mrs Ariel Evans, 28, and her businessman husband are tempted by sea-view condominiums going for prices similar to those of HDB flats. She told The Straits Times some agents have been dangling deposits as low as RM10,0000 for a unit worth more than RM1 million.
The Singaporean couple live in Woodlands and are considering moving across the Causeway as they are both self-employed.
However, Mrs Evans has concerns, like having her young children travel daily to school in Singapore, and a JB flat’s potential for appreciation.
“We will have to think about whether the extra time spent will be worth the cost savings,” she said.