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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hillside projects from a developer’s viewpoint

Teh: SDB has complied with all the remedial and safety requirements to certify that its Damansara 21 project (above) is safe for construction

AS one drives along Jalan Damansara towards the city, it is impossible to miss the blue sheets covering parts of Bukit Damansara the last 10 months.

For decades, that location and the larger Damansara Heights has been one of the most upmarket residential suburbs in Kuala Lumpur.

Bukit Damansara is today embroiled in a controversy with angry and fearful residents on one side and a developer on the other, in the wake of last week’s tragedy in Bukit Antarabangsa, Ulu Kelang which took four lives, injured 15 and destroyed 14 houses.

Because SDB Properties Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Selangor Dredging Bhd, is currently involved in two hillside developments – Damansara 21 in Bukit Damansara and 20Trees, Taman Melawati – the company has come out on record to give its view to allay fears and further controversy.

Its managing director Teh Lip Kim says Damansara 21 will not suffer the same fate as Bukit Antarabangsa as long as the company’s plans to stabilise the slope continue unhindered.

She also says the company will need six months to complete soil stabilisation works to make the hill safe.

“To stop work now is dangerous and irresponsible. Because we are the landowner, we are responsible for this property,” she says, adding that the company has been around since the 1960s and has a reputation to uphold. Neither would we start a project if it was unsafe,” she says.

The company was slapped with a stop-work order for about 10 months. Work resumed in October.

The luxurious development, scheduled for launch by the second half of next year, comprises 21 multi-storey bungalows with a starting price of RM10mil each.

The project will have a gross development value of RM250mil.

“In today’s economic climate, it will be difficult to sell the bungalows. Yet, we are ready to spend RM30mil to strengthen the slope and ensure that the houses and surrounding areas are safe.

“It would be more dangerous to abandon operations mid-way,” she says.

Teh adds that upon completion of the project, SDB would be setting up a sinking fund to continue slope maintenance in the gated and guarded development.

The company aims to terrace the hill and site the bungalows on flat platforms carved into the hillside.

Teh says the company had complied with all the remedial and safety requirements to certify its Damansara 21 project was safe for construction.

SDB group general manager Loong Ching Hong says apart from city hall, the company has also obtained approvals from 16 other departments.

He adds that SBD has even been accused of bribing its way to obtain the approvals.

“Is it possible to bribe 16 departments?” Loong asks, adding that the Damansara 21 project was on par with the latest engineering standards.

SDB also has another hillside development, 20Trees in Taman Melawati, which comprises low-rise apartments and landed homes. To sdate, Teh says about 75% of this Melawati project has been sold.

Geotechnical engineer Dr Gue See Sew, who has been extensively quoted each time a landslide occurred, says it would be the height of folly to stop work when part of the land is cleared.

“To stop the developer from continuing operations to strengthen the slope is tantamount to doing an operation half way and forcing the surgeons to stop. To do nothing, when the slope is already cleared, is as bad as inviting a disaster. It is dangerous to stop now,” says Gue, adding that it is best the developer continues slope stabilisation work as speedily as possible.

“Caisson piling, which is what is being done on Damansara 21, involves a hand-dug method. It is much like digging a well by hand and pouring concrete and reinforcement into the ground.

“It is unlike bored piling, which uses a huge machine to drive piling into the ground like a hammer on a nail.

“Caisson is a far better option for hillside development,” says Gue, who is an independent source.

Country Heights Holdings Bhd CEO Datuk C. S. Ong, who has been trying for several years to turn Country Heights Damansara into another upmarket development like Damansara Heights, has discovered that his vision remains a distant dream, just as the dreams of land owners who bought that property several years ago.

Of 270 bungalow plots, works have started on only 70 of them.

Only half of which have been completed while the remaining 30-odd remain as work-in-progress.

About 30% of the 270 vacant bungalow plots have a gradient of 26 degrees or more, some as high as 45 degrees, says Ong.

He gave no reasons why the project is taking so long to materialise other than building a house on a slope is not the same as building on level ground.

It takes a very brave landowner to begin construction.

Not only will building on slope cost a lot more – 45% or more compared with constructing on flat ground – landowners are uncertain how to go about it because of the steepness of the slopes.

Geotechnical expertise is a must, even before construction. These reports must be submitted to the authorities.

Says Ong: “Architects think of aesthetics. Geotechnical engineers think of the safety of the slope and construction. There must be regular checks for unstable land conditions even as construction goes on. And when the house is build, checks and maintenance continue to be a must.

“Nature will give man time to remedy. There will be signs and symptoms. The danger is when these signs are ignored,” says Ong.

With the Bukit Antarabangsa tragedy still fresh on people’s minds, what are the options for landowners over at Country Heights Damansara? The price of land there is telling.

If one were to buy land from the developer today, the price of vacant land is between RM250 and RM300 per sq ft.

On the secondary market, it is between RM220 and RM270 psf.

“Slightly cheaper on the secondary market,” admits Ong. It looks as if Country Heights Damansara will remain green for quite a while to come.

By The Star (by Thean Lee Cheng, Eugene Mahalingam and Rachael Kam)

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