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Tue, Apr 08, 2014
The Straits Times
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From bohemian mall to mani-pedi hub
by Cheryl Ong

The Holland Road Shopping Centre has become a pale shadow of its former self, with shops changing hands or staying empty, and an influx of nail bars that have turned it into a manicure-pedicure hub.

The three-storey landmark in Holland Village used to draw crowds looking for souvenirs, curios, furniture, art and antiques, as well as festive decorations, clothes for big-sized people and shoes for those with large feet.

It attracted expatriates, Singaporeans and tourists.

Built in 1972, it is looking decidedly run-down and, at times, deserted. Some familiar tenants are still there - like the Thambi Magazine Store, Cold Storage supermarket and Lim's Arts and Living.

But the past two years have seen several others move out, including the popular EMF Bookstore, and at least five vacant units have "for rent" signs on their glass doors.

Several tenants blamed the decline on the lack of variety among the shops.

More than a dozen nail bars, some of which also offer beauty services, have sprouted in recent years.

Many tenants say they depend on long-time customers as the walk-in crowd picks up only on weekends.

Ms Jasmine Ng, owner of picture framing shop D'Artist Gallery, has been at the centre since 1987 and relies mainly on her corporate clients. She said new tenants hoping for walk-in customers would find it tough to survive.

The owner of an arts and crafts shop, who declined to be named, said he sometimes does not make a sale for three to five days.

The nail parlours seem to be getting by despite the competition.

Ms Clarice Lim, 33, owner of The Kuching Nail Spa, said she moved in seven months ago and business is brisk with 10 to 15 visitors on weekdays and up to 30 a day on weekends.

But competition has driven her to run regular promotions for her customers, 80 per cent of whom are Caucasians and 35 per cent are men.

The 95,831 sq ft complex was built by Song Lim Holdings in 1972 and sits on 40,000 sq ft of freehold land. It has 111 strata-titled units and no fewer than 78 owners free to set their own rents.

Despite its faded appearance and dwindling crowds, rents remain high. Ms Ng said she used to rent a 400 sq ft unit for $6,000 a month. When her landlord wanted $500 more, she moved to a 238 sq ft unit for $3,500 a month.

She said it is common for tenants to "move from shop to shop" as owners raise rents, and the rent for units on the same floor can differ by as much as $800.

Shop owner Raymond Ang wants at least $4,000 for his vacant 210 sq ft unit, saying it is not tucked away at the back and he will cover the monthly maintenance of $300.

Like him, other landlords do not seem in a hurry to find tenants, and some units have been known to stay empty for months.

Mr Ku Swee Yong, chief executive of property firm Century 21, said: "Some landlords would rather wait for business with higher margins to become their tenants, and are willing to leave their units vacant until then."

Other owners are waiting to sell. Units which cost around $100,000 in the 1970s are going for as much as a few million dollars now.

Two men who expect things to improve are shop owners Alan Ng and C.K. Lim, who own more than a third of the space in the building between them.

Mr Ng, 44, whose family developed the mall, owns at least 28,000 sq ft. He said that unlike in developer-run malls, rents in a building with many owners can be more haphazard.

"You can't control it, the units are all owned by different individuals. But the advantage is it becomes a very competitive market, and only those that can find a niche and survive stay on," he said.

He said construction of the Holland Village MRT station just outside the mall disrupted business for several years and although the station has been completed, "we lost many regular customers".

Mr Lim, 67, chief executive of Lim's Arts and Living, has been there since 1972. He owns about 6,000 sq ft, half of which is for his shop and the rest rented to tenants selling spectacles, clothes and beer.

"If I can, I try not to rent to a nail spa," he said. "I'm willing to accept rents that are a little bit lower for a better tenant mix."

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan, Holland Village is designated as an "identity node", a neighbourhood with distinctive features worth keeping.

That, and the MRT station at its doorstep, means people will continue to arrive. The question is how to get them to enter the shopping centre.

Mr Ng and Mr Lim hinted at plans to add some buzz to the old building, with new food and beverage concepts, but declined to reveal details.

"This shopping centre has been here for 40 years, we need some time to change," said Mr Lim.

For now though, many shoppers are giving the place a miss. Ms Janet Toh, whose clothes alterations shop has been there since the 1970s, said there is little for people to see and most who come in seek a specific service.

She said: "Sometimes my clients tell us to go down and pass their clothes to them, they don't even want to come up."

This article was published on April 6 in The Straits Times.

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