3 decades-old school campuses in Balestier and Queenstown to be demolished for housing

The Balestier site is about 22,400 sq m and currently houses the Singapore campus of Australia’s Curtin University. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Updated from : The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2022

Three school campuses in Balestier and Queenstown that are decades old will soon make way for housing developments, with the Housing Board (HDB) in the midst of awarding demolition tenders.

The Balestier site to be cleared, 90 and 92 Jalan Rajah, is about 22,400 sq m – roughly three football fields – and currently houses the Singapore campus of Australia’s Curtin University.

The other two sites are the former Mei Chin Secondary School at 1 Mei Chin Road and former Mei Chin Primary School at 3 Mei Chin Road. Both were officially opened in 1977.

These two campuses – last used as temporary housing for migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic – are zoned under one plot in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) masterplan. The plot is about 35,000 sq m, the equivalent of about five football fields.

The Balestier site housed schools even before Singapore’s independence, first serving two schools – Kim Keat Integrated School when it opened in June 1963, alongside Kim Keat Vocational School, which opened shortly after in June 1965.

The buildings also concurrently housed the Institute of Technical Education and the 1st Singapore Civil Defence Force Division Headquarters, prior to Curtin Singapore taking over in 2008.

A university spokesman said its current lease expires in mid-2022 and it will move to The Alpha building in Science Park 2. A statement on the university’s website said the move will take place by the end of April.

Both the Balestier and Queenstown plots have been zoned “residential (subject to detailed planning)” under the URA masterplan – which guides Singapore’s development over the next 10 to 15 years – since 2019.

Asked whether the future developments will be private or public housing, or when demolition will begin, HDB said plans will be announced when they are ready.

If the sites are for private housing, they will likely be sold to developers via the biannual Government Land Sales process.

Mr Nicholas Mak, head of research and consultancy at ERA Realty, said that while the HDB’s involvement in awarding the demolition tenders does not guarantee the sites will be used for public housing, existing developments surrounding both sites – largely HDB flats – suggest that the new projects will also be public flats.

If so, he expects Build-To-Order (BTO) flats in the Queenstown plot to be especially popular, given that its straight-line distance from Queenstown MRT station is about 400m.

The area is among several mature estates that have seen resale HDB flats fetching beyond $1 million.

As for the Balestier site, which is about 1.3km from Toa Payoh MRT station, Mr Mak said it will be popular with buyers if it is well served by public buses.

If the plots are part of future BTO launches, Mr Mak does not rule out that they will fall under the HDB’s prime location public housing model. 

Under this model, flats are priced with additional subsidies that will be clawed back when they are resold, and there will also be a 10-year minimum occupation period before they can enter the market, up from the usual five. These measures, along with others, are meant to keep prime area flats affordable and inclusive.

While the Government has said that prime locations refer to the city centre and the future Greater Southern Waterfront, Mr Mak noted that the second BTO project to fall under the model – in King George’s Avenue in the Jalan Besar area – is a “borderline area” not typically considered within the city centre.

“If the definition of ‘prime locations’ continues to expand, Queenstown and Balestier, which command high resale prices, could be included,” he said.

International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore president Yeo Kang Shua said the buildings to be demolished in Balestier and Queenstown were ubiquitous in their time, a result of the Public Works Department’s (PWD) standardisation of school designs so that projects could be completed quickly to cater to the education needs of a rapidly growing population.

For instance, the former Kim Keat Integrated School’s block resembles Telok Kurau Primary School’s former campus in Joo Chiat Place, which was also completed in the 1960s. But these PWD-built school buildings that were once common have become rare, with many giving way to other developments, said Dr Yeo, an architectural historian.

He noted that a large majority of Singapore’s conserved former school buildings – numbering about 20 – were built pre-independence. He added that the authorities should consider keeping some similar to those about to be demolished, as they are representative of Singapore’s education landscape in the early independence years.

Mr Terence Tan, 52, who attended Kim Keat Primary School – which the integrated school was renamed to – between 1977 and 1982, said he is sad to hear about the upcoming demolition.

He added that in his early school years, rules required boys to have shaved heads, making Kim Keat’s pupils easily recognisable in the neighbourhood.

“When the hairstyle rule was relaxed, we started carrying combs to school,” he said.

Mr Tan, an artist and photographer, hopes the authorities can install signboards with old photographs of the school in future developments, so that those who have walked through its halls will have something to remember it by.