Urban regeneration hiccups
Aliff Yusri 
The King George VI clock tower, erected in 1937, is the urban square’s central feature

URBAN regeneration, the revitalisation of ageing neighbourhoods within larger metropolitan areas, is an essential part of city planning. Medan Pasar and Asian Heritage Row in Kuala Lumpur stand out as historic locales recently updated to reflect contemporary market trends.

However, despite the millions poured into such projects, the country has a chequered track record when it comes to urban regeneration initiatives.

The revival of Medan Pasar by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) from 2009 to 2014 saw the beautification and pedestrianisation of KL’s Old Market Square, a key commercial hub for the city in the late 19th century.


“Social issues such as vandalism and vagrancy have risen since Medan Pasar’s rejuvenation,” Nik Mastura

The initiative was proposed as a quick win under the Economic Transformation Programme’s Entry Point Project (EPP) 7: Iconic Places for the Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley National Key Economic Area (NKEA) , according to DBKL City Planning Department senior deputy director Nik Mastura Diyana.


“However, the outcomes were not up to expectations in terms of visitorship, and there are several social issues that need to be addressed, such as vandalism and vagrancy,” Nik Mastura tells FocusM.

While many revitalisation projects such as Medan Pasar tend to focus on physical features such as landscaping and infrastructure, there is a need for placemaking, which takes into account the social context of a site to maximise its visitorship and relevance to the community.

Placemaking is essentially the design and management of public spaces with a focus on its users and residents as opposed to infrastructure and physical features.

Medan Pasar rose to prominence as a centre for trade following Kuala Lumpur’s founding in 1857 due to its strategic location near the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, just north of Central Market.

The relocation of market activities to Central Market, which opened in 1888, saw the site decline as a commercial hotspot, though it retained cultural significance as seen in the 1937 erection of an art deco-themed clock tower on its grounds commemorating the coronation of King George VI.

More recently, Medan Pasar has served as a transport hub serving bus operators such as Rapid Bus Sdn Bhd and Metrobus Nationwide Sdn Bhd.

DBKL’s 2009 revival efforts saw the permanent closing of the square to vehicle traffic as part of the RM5 mil Heritage Trail One initiative linking historic Kuala Lumpur sites such as the National Mosque, Merdeka Square and Central Market in a walking tour.

Medan Pasar’s revitalisation also benefits from the ongoing River of Life EPP, a RM4.1 bil beautification effort involving some 110km of the Klang, Gombak, Keroh, Jinjang, Batu, Bunus, Ampang and Kerayong rivers.


Metropolitan makeover

Today, the 0.32ha site encompasses an urban square with the King George VI clock tower at its centre, lined by two rows of shophouses with colonial designs.

“The site’s current visitor demographics aren’t conducive towards commercial enterprise,” says Koh

“Medan Pasar has a high concentration of historic structures, which is why the government has invested heavily into the area,” says CEO Cha-Ly Koh.

Undertaken by I-Nai Venture Holding Sdn Bhd as a contractor, the revival involved 23 commercial and residential units with a total of 41 owners comprising both individuals and companies.

Operators at the site before the revamp ranged from banks, educational institutes, money changers and restaurants to tourism agencies, hotels and newspaper distributors, with 21,353 workers, 487 residents, 72 households and 1,207 businesses within a 400m catchment radius.

Of particular note, the project had to proceed with minimal impact on Medan Pasar’s newspaper distribution operations, involving 600 distributors working from 4am to 7am daily.

In addition, focus group discussions were held with transport and utility agencies such as the Land Public Transport Commission and Tenaga Nasional Bhd to reroute existing bus, power, water and telecommunications lines.

Despite DBKL’s efforts, commercial property prices in the area have trended downwards since the revitalisation. In Q4 2013, two triple-storey shoplots on Lebuh Pudu were transacted at a median price of RM786.50 psf, according to property portal.

Subsquently a five-storey unit at Medan Pasar proper sold at RM546 psf in Q4 2014. Two years later in Q4 last year, a five-storey shoplot on Jalan Hang Kasturi fetched just RM493 psf.

“There seems to be no domestic ownership related to the site. It does attract interest from tourists, and there are a lot of foreign nationals in the area,” says Koh.

“However, these are primarily transient demographics which don’t contribute towards building a critical mass, and that limits commercial prospects,” she adds.


Placemaking principles

According to a Think City Sdn Bhd study exploring the usage patterns of 1,481 visitors over a single day, Medan Pasar’s current visitorship primarily consists of youths aged 21 to 35 (51%).

The square was busiest in the morning (642 visitors) and evening (519 visitors), with less activity in the afternoon (320 visitors).

The majority of these visitors (81%) were walking through the square to other destinations. Others stood (9%) or sat (5%) for extended periods of time, while a few (2%) were waiting for the bus. Only 3% were engaged in commercial activity.

“Medan Pasar’s night time population is about 5,000 to 6,000, which is low considering the area sees up to 60,000 people commuting in for work every day,” says Think City programme manager Duncan Cave.

“Urban revitalisation includes the ‘hardware’ of physical features as well as the ‘software’ of social context,” says Cave

“After creating a space, you need to ‘programme’ that space with suitable activities to encourage visitorship and community interaction, like the software that tells a computer’s hardware how to run,” he says.

Think City is an urban regeneration initiative originally established in 2009 to rejuvenate George Town, with a subsequent focus on Butterworth, Perak, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of national wealth fund Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

In terms of international case studies, Cave likens Medan Pasar to Nottingham’s Old Market Square in the UK.

More than 700 years old, the square underwent pedestrianisation and relandscaping in 2007. Today, it is one of Nottingham’s prime retail areas as well as a vibrant fair, concert and exhibition space.

Medan Pasar’s regeneration included its repositioning as a communal venue, with DBKL specifying the space be left open to accommodate large gatherings.

However, Malaysia’s hotter climate has seen some concerns regarding the feasibility of an open air space without central greenery for shade – a common issue for walkability initiatives in cities across the nation.

The municipal authority also engaged with stakeholders in the area to preserve Medan Pasar’s cultural and historical identity throughout its annual events calendar.

“We formulated specific guidelines governing activities in Medan Pasar, called building use classes, which owners must comply with when planning activities and so on,” says Nik Mastura.

“Since the area is a heritage site, we also assisted the owners in repainting the facades of their shophouses. This was originally proposed on a 70-30 cost-sharing basis, though DBKL bore the full costs in the end,” she adds.

In a bid to revitalise Medan Pasar’s social presence, DBKL collaborated with Think City, the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association Malaysia, Malaysian Institute of Architects  and Malaysian Institute of Planners in organising The Young People’s Lab 2017, themed Let’s Revive My City: One Space At A Time (see sidebar).

“Rejuvenation is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. At this stage, DBKL is looking at the softer aspects of the site and how to draw the crowd,” says Young People’s Lab 2017 chairman Ra Adrina Muztaza.

Proposals at the workshop included deploying mobile planter boxes to provide shade while maintaining an open space for events, updating the King George VI clock tower as a holographic projector and constructing a cooling canopy structure with solar panels.

“The Lab goes towards generating concepts specific to Medan Pasar while tapping into the creativity of the millennial mindset, and these proposals will be compiled and evaluated before the authority invests into the area again,” says Ra.


Everything old is new again

Regeneration initiatives are often necessary in modern cities as time, residency patterns and social trends can leave large tracts of urban real estate underutilised, obsolete or in simple disrepair.

In most cases, repurposing these properties is more cost-effective than tearing down the facade and foundation of the existing structures and building.

“You can find 20-year old subsale condominiums on Jalan Ampang for RM600 psf. That’s an incredible price for a home in the city centre,” says Bukit Kiara Properties group managing director Datuk NK Tong.

“But it’s much more difficult to build new projects in Kuala Lumpur these days and sell them for the same price, due to the rise in land and material costs in the interim.”

Eco World Development Sdn Bhd’s reimagination of 7.85ha of disused land previously housing the Pudu Prison in the heart of Kuala Lumpur as Bukit Bintang City Centre (BBCC) is perhaps the foremost contemporary example of urban regeneration.

With a gross development value of RM8.7 bil, the integrated development includes residential, entertainment, retail, office and office components.

The first residential launch within BBCC, comprising 393 serviced apartment units under Lucentia Residences, has seen an uptake of more than 70% since its debut in December 2016.

The BBCC project is perhaps an exception to the idea that urban regeneration should draw from the site’s historical and social context. The project’s stakeholders have understandably avoided connection with its infamous past as the capital’s main prison for a century.

The BBCC project is a joint collaboration between EcoWorld, which holds a 40% stake, UDA Holdings Bhd (40%) and the Employees Provident Fund (20%).

Reviving forgotten hotspots

FORMERLY known as Asian Heritage Row, The Row comprises 22 shophouses along Jalan Doraisamy, Kuala Lumpur.

The pre-war shophouses were representative of the city’s terraced residential neighbourhoods up till the 

In the early 2000s, they were repurposed as a series of trendy restaurants and cafes, and the district gained prominence as a nightlife destination.

However, this came at a cost, as its popularity led to an increase in disorderly conduct and even violent crime in the neighbourhood after hours.

These social issues contributed to Asian Heritage Row’s decline, as increasing police presence and word of mouth led to lower visitorship numbers.

In 2013, the area was rebranded as The Row following a major adaptive reuse initiative by Malaysian and Singaporean industry players.

These included Urbanspace Sdn Bhd, which served as The Row’s developer, Pocket Projects Pte Ltd (creative development consultant), Studio Bikin Sdn Bhd and Zarch Collaboratives Pte Ltd (design architects) and Marc Architecture Sdn Bhd (project architects).

The revitalisation effort focused on reinventing the district as a creative enclave, with a 3,300 sq ft events venue dubbed The Slate at its core.

Other tenants include co-working and collaborative start-up space The Co and retail boutiques such as League of Captains, as well as food and beverage brands like Common Grind and Limapulo: Baba Can Cook.

The Row’s revitalisation succeeded in alleviating the social issues which plagued its previous iteration, with no further reports of drunken brawls or shootings 
in the area. It has become a popular venue for lifestyle events and upwardly mobile demographics.

However, a lack of convenient parking spaces prevents it from drawing larger crowds, with visitors often having to resort to facilities in Quill City Mall nearby.

Similar to The Row, Plaza Batai in Damansara Heights was recently revitalised by developer Selangor Properties Bhd to foster a more upscale image and tenant mix.

Formerly a commercial hotspot comprising 16 double-storey terraced shop lots completed in 1972, it was best known for community favourites such as Hock Lee Supermarket and Restoran Seng Lee.

The refurbishment, which commenced in September 2014 and was completed in March 2015, saw the rejuvenation of the shophouses’ facades and the modernisation of their design, as well as the inclusion of more greenery and parking spaces.

Today, Plaza Batai is home to a vibrant mix of dining establishments such as Torii Yakitori & Whiskey Bar and Yellow Brick Road, fitness operators like Firestation Fit and Pilatique, fashion boutiques, beauty salons and more, with Ben’s Independent Grocer as a successor of sorts to Hock Lee Supermarket.

Its revitalisation drew recognition from travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, which recently placed Damansara Heights and Plaza Batai in particular alongside hotspots such as The Triangle in Lisbon, Portugal and Sunset Park in New York, US as the world’s trendiest neighbourhoods. 

Regeneration and the next generation

TARGETED at industry professionals under 40 years of age, the Young People’s Lab 2017 was held on Aug 7 at the Kuala Lumpur Tourism Bureau to enhance Medan Pasar’s relevance to the community.

“We wanted to get young people involved in city planning and give them a say in how their community is developed,” says Young People’s Lab 2017 chairman Ra Adrina Muztaza.

The one-day workshop, which included a walking tour of the Medan Pasar site, saw over 100 architects, planners, engineers, developers and students in 10 groups brainstorming possible solutions to increase visitorship at Medan Pasar.

The proposals were evaluated by a panel of judges which included regulatory representatives and industry practitioners.

Submissions were evaluated according to criteria ranging from practicality and aesthetic appeal to sustainability and faithfulness to Medan Pasar’s existing structures and heritage.

The winning proposal, submitted by a group called Cloud 9, conceptualised the site as a green heritage plaza, with integrated bioswales, pervious pavements and water features conducive towards street entertainment.

It included a round-the-clock annual events calendar with scheduled street busking, weekend market, outdoor cinema, music festival, food truck, and outdoor art and historical exhibition activities to encourage visitorship after hours.

The members of the group ranged from urban planners such as Jiselle Wanzhen (AIC Planning) and Soleh Ramli (AJM Planning & Urban Design Group) to interior designers such as Farahin Isa (Ashrie (M) Sdn Bhd) and University of Malaya students.

Winning the workshop entitled Cloud 9 to present its submission to more than 550 international delegates at the World Class Sustainable Cities 2017 conference held in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 10.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.