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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Investors infuse value into heritage buildings

AS PENANG'S property scene remains on the boil with developers offering newer and pricier accommodation and commercial options, a new trend in property investment is emerging, notably in George Town's heritage enclave.

In contrast to land reclamation projects, those on hillslopes and efforts in building on virtually any and every available space on the land-scarce island, a group of property investors are out to prove that "old is gold", infusing new life into heritage buildings and giving conservation an economic context.

From foreign retirees to young people who are starting off a business, the address of choice for their premises seem to be centred around the inner city, which saw a migration of its residents a decade ago.

In place of dilapidated shophouses and abandoned pre-war homes are now chic eateries, boutique residences, private dwellings and quaint shops, which make walking tours to visitors very refreshing.
Although the interest in heritage properties is not new, a spike was noted when the Rent Control Act was repealed in 2000.

"George Town has always been synonymous with its historic buildings," notes One Asia Property Consultants (Penang) Sdn Bhd chief operating officer Lim Ewe Tatt.

He attributes George Town's conferment as a World Heritage Site by Unesco to one of the reasons why there has been a recent surge in the number of eateries and boutique accommodation.

"The need to preserve our heritage comes along with it," he said, adding that demand for heritage properties is currently centred within George Town's inner city in sites such as Lebuh Armenian, Lebuh Muntri, Lorong Stewart and other streets boasting structures with beautiful designs.

Award-winning architect Laurence Loh - who is synonymous with putting Malaysian conservation efforts on the world map with the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or La Maison Bleue (the blue house) - blazed a trail in architectural conservation in Malaysia, long before the issue even became trendy or understood.

He has to date, worked on some 30 conservation projects in George Town, of which about 70 per cent have been commercial in content.

Loh's first conservation job was the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Lebuh Leith, which he describes as a challenging project.

"This was because in 1990, I did not have any working or hands-on knowledge and training in building conservation, nor attended a single course.

"There was no Internet, so reaching out for help and advice was difficult from a statutory point of view. The laws for protection of heritage were also non-existent," said the deputy president of Badan Warisan Malaysia.

Conceding that the World Heritage inscription has placed George Town and in turn, the whole of Penang under the microscope, Loh added: "World attention has zoomed in on us and the advantages and opportunities are beginning to be apparent."

People, Loh said, are exposed to the heritage values of the place and is a greater awareness now.

"The concept of living in the city that was formerly alien has become fashionable and stylish."

The government's property market report for 2009 showed that a total of 164 pre-war properties (totalling RM74.22 million) were transacted in Penang during the first six months.

This is in contrast with the 120 pre-war properties worth RM64.45 million transacted in the state during the corresponding period in 2008.

"Pre-war properties usually encompass several units which are sitting on one title and if you are to analyse it, it is cheaper than buying into a property with its own qualified title," said Lim.

"The price range could be from RM200 per sq ft to RM500 per sq ft, depending on the location, size, condition and other considerations."

On whether the latest wave in heritage property investments is likely to see a revival of activity in the historic enclave, Lim said: "We anticipate a revival of commercial activities in the area but we doubt it will bring back the residents.

"One of the reasons is the lack of car parking space in this area, and rentals are no longer affordable to the lower-income group who used to stay here."

Although the current trend serves as a boost for the city, Loh said that the only critical factor to it is that the authorities have to really look into managing change.

"They cannot allow market forces to dictate the direction of pace or policy," he added.

By Business Times

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