Desmond Lee: North-South Expressway can not avoid Ellison Building entirely

Mr Kok Heng Leun, a Nominated Member of Parliament, asked the Minister for National Development, a series of questions, in respect of the demolition and rebuilding of three units of Ellison Building for the purpose of the North-South Corridor (NSC):

  1. Whether LTA and URA have considered realigning the North-South Expressway without affecting Ellison Building when the alignment plan was announced in 2011,
  2. Whether studies were made before arriving at this option and, if so, whether they were disclosed,
  3. Whether LTA and URA have consulted with stakeholders such as the long-term tenants of the building, residents living in the area and heritage organisations and, if not, what are the reasons,
  4. What is the loss in heritage value created by this option,
  5. What are the mitigation measures considered before deciding on this option, and,
  6. Why is this decision the best option.

Senior Minister of State for National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, answered in place for the Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong.

Mr Lee said: “The North-South Corridor (NSC) is an integrated transport corridor which incorporates bus lanes, cycling trunk routes and an expressway that runs elevated, and as well as underground. When completed, it will connect the residential towns and estates in the North such as Woodlands, Sembawang, Yishun, Ang Mo Kio, Bishan and Toa Payoh to the city centre.”

“Given the 21 km length of the NSC, LTA had conducted detailed engineering studies over many years. Throughout this time, agencies worked very hard to minimise the impact of the NSC works on neighbouring buildings and developments.”

“The segment of the NSC leading into the city centre runs underneath Bukit Timah Road, where space is extremely tight due to the underground public infrastructure in that area.”

“On one side of Bukit Timah Road is the underground Rochor Canal. This is an important drainage facility which helps low-lying areas in the city cope with intense periods of rainfall.”

“The North-East MRT Line (NEL) cuts across Bukit Timah Road, while the Downtown MRT Line (DTL) runs beneath Bukit Timah Road.”

“Now, this means that the NSC tunnels must run in between the foundations of existing buildings along both sides of Bukit Timah Road, the underground Rochor Canal as well as the NEL and DTL stations, as well as tunnels.”

The Senior Minister of State said this is a very challenging engineering task, sufficient clearance distance must be allowed between the NSC tunnels and the surrounding underground structures for safety reasons.

The NSC tunnel also cannot be lowered further into the ground to avoid these underground infrastructures, as doing so will require extensive ramps and portal structures to connect the NSC carriageway with surface streets which will then affect the nearby MRT stations and impact many more other buildings and development.

Given these constraints, LTA has had to work out the best possible alignment for the NSC tunnel under the circumstances, Mr Lee said.

He explained that the original alignment for the NSC would have impacted even more buildings and developments and spaces, including Rex Cinema, as well as several of the shophouse units at Ellison Building, much more than what the public is aware of today. “In fact, Rex Cinema was completely affected in the initial alignments,” he said.

“Nevertheless, we recognised the heritage value of Rex Cinema and Ellison Building,” Mr Lee continued, “And hence, agencies were committed to carry out detailed engineering studies to further minimise the impact on these buildings. On that basis, URA proceeded to gazette the two buildings for conservation in 2008.”

Mr Lee stressed, the agencies had worked hard to carry out extensive studies and eventually managed to develop a solution for the NSC to avoid Rex Cinema completely. However, given the very tight space in the Bukit Timah Road corridor, the NSC alignment will not be able to avoid Ellison Building entirely – at least the space underneath the building – which, unlike Rex Cinema, stands much closer to the road carriageway.

These engineering studies were concluded only recently, and the result is that the impact on Ellison Building can, under current plans, be reduced to one corner shophouse unit, instead of a larger portion or the entire building, he said.

Mr Lee reiterated, “In this regard, LTA and URA have started engaging heritage groups to seek their views on how to better protect the Ellison Building when the construction process begins. There have been two rounds of discussion thus far, which centred on possible mitigating measures to protect the building during the construction of the NSC.”

“In taking this forward, LTA’s conservation consultant will explore various mitigating measures in detail as part of the study on Ellison Building.”

“URA and LTA will continue to work closely with the heritage groups and the heritage community in Singapore on the construction methods to protect Ellison Building, as well as the measures that should be taken to preserve the heritage and history of that site. The Government will finalise its implementation plans after these discussions are concluded,” Mr Lee finished.

However, the answer shed no light on Mr Kok’s questions number 1, 3, 4 and 5 and 6.

In 2008, Ellison Building was gazetted as a conservation building by URA as part of the Mount Sophia Conservation Area.  Ellison Building was built in 1924 and the three units that is set to be demolished, are located at the junction of Selegie and Bukit Timah Roads. The building consists of 16 adjoining shophouse units. The three affected units complete the Bukit Timah end of its two distinctive curved street corner façades, each crowned by a cupola.

Singapore Heritage Society and also ICOMOS Singapore had issued statements objecting to the demolish and reconstruction of Ellison Building and had tried to ask for reasons and ascertain whether had there been consultations and efforts to find another way out to make way for the North-South Expressway without disturbing the building.

ICOMOS wrote in its statement that the authorities have presented the ‘conflict’ in planning priorities as a false dichotomy — that of development versus heritage. The choice is not binary for a much more balanced and integrated approach is possible.

Noting that this ‘exceptional course of action’ – to demolish and reconstruct part of a gazetted conservation building – will have long term implications on future planning and conservation policies. It behooves the authorities to undertake a proper Heritage Impact Assessment, consult with stakeholders, and engage with experts to explore alternative solutions. It is not evident if any of this has been done. Indeed, the authorities have kept silent all these months on this proposal and only unleashed it on an unsuspecting public in mid August this year.

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