Soaring density in Penang with 87 units/acre and Soho guidelines

Penang Forum representative Lim Mah Hui has raised two urgent issues that will lead to much higher density in Penang – without the supporting infrastructure to cope.

I would like to raise two urgent issues – the guidelines for 87 units per acre and for small office/home office (Soho) – that require public consultation under the policy of Competence, Accountability and Transparency (CAT). These two issues will significantly have an impact on the lives of residents in Penang because of the three-fold increase in density (from 30 units/acre to 87 units/acre) for the first set of guidelines and possibly a five-fold (156 units/acre) increase under the guidelines for Soho compared to the (aborted) Penang Global City Centre project of 37 units/acre.

I will address this policy from three aspects: the objective, the planning process, and the consultation process.

The objective of increasing density was to make housing more affordable. But there is no evidence of this happening. On the other hand, it has led to other negative social and environmental consequences including more traffic congestion. We should explore more effective policies to make housing affordable such as discouraging building more high-end property, already facing a glut, by imposing higher development charges and fees on them, and providing incentives and cross subsidies for building affordable housing.

I am not against higher density per se. But higher density must not be haphazard and driven by private interest. It must be guided by proper planning and preceded by adequate social and physical infrastructure.

The original idea of increased density was limited to transit nodes. Why has this requirement disappeared in the present guidelines? The present policy of traffic impact studies on an individual project basis has failed. The results are evident everywhere. It can only be solved on a holistic basis with the integration of land use and transport planning as recommended by the Penang Master Transport Plan.

Is the Council using this Master Plan in its land use planning? The State’s general policy of 87 units per acre only sets a ceiling. The Council is responsible for approving the final density (it can be under 87) based on local conditions and requirements.

Third, the present consultation process is lop-sided. In formulating the present guidelines, only selected stakeholders like developers and architects are consulted. The majority of stakeholders, i.e., the public and the community who are directly affected are not consulted. I propose that the Council organise a public forum on these issues. Penang Forum will be happy to be a co-organiser.

I would like to raise some questions regarding the building of commercial suites or Soho (small office/ home office) in Penang. Why are developers clamouring to build commercial suites? Developers are presently using commercial land to build residential apartments, disguised as commercial suites, because they are able to build more apartments this way. Furthermore, they avoid providing open space and other social facilities necessary under residential building guidelines.

If we are worried about the high density of 87 units per acre, developers using the commercial suite (Soho) route can build up to 156 units per acre based on a maximum plot ratio of 1:5. What are the consequences of this higher density on the public? Is it permissible to sell commercial suites as residential apartments?

Finally, I would like Council to provide a map of areas zoned that permit 87 units per acre and Soho projects and to invite public comments before these guidelines are approved by Council. What is the total acreage that falls under these proposed guidelines? To date how many 87 units per acre and Soho projects have been approved and where? Do they fit with the Master Transport Plan? Are there adequate open space, roads, schools and social facilities to support them? How many more projects are pending approval and where? I call for a moratorium on these projects pending public consultation.

Penang Municipal Councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui, the representative of Penang Forum in the council, delivered the above address at a full council meeting of the MPPP today.

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