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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Crest Builder eyes lucrative pocket landbank owned by govt agencies


CREST Builder Holdings Bhd’s Eric Yong has a running joke with his friends.
“I tell them that if they see an unused fire station, give me a call and I will propose a development,” says the fresh-faced 31-year old.
Only he isn’t kidding.
Yong, the son of Crest Builder founder Yong Soon Chow, and the company’s public face and executive director, believes that the land monetised by Syarikat Prasarana Negara Bhd and the Malaysian Rubber Board (MRB) so far is only the tip of the iceberg.
“We are looking at all the government assets in town,” he tells StarBizWeek. “There are plenty of agencies with prime land.”
Industry sources say more bids are expected out of Prasarana. They add that the public transport owner and operator, which reportedly has 50 sites available for development, aims to dish out five such projects a year.
The landbank along its Ampang LRT line is believed to be up for grabs this year.
Crest Builder recently bagged its second transit-oriented development job with Prasarana for the Kelana Jaya LRT station in Petaling Jaya worth RM1bil in gross development value (GDV).
In 2012 the firm clinched its first transit-oriented development for The Bank, a RM1.04bil, 43-storey tower above the Dang Wangi LRT station in Kuala Lumpur.
That same year it won the bid for MRB’s land in Jalan Ampang. The RM1.33bil mixed-use project has been dubbed The Galleria.
All in the family
Yong and his three sisters, all of them in their 20s or 30s, work for the company. As he tells it, the three-decades-old Crest Builder has come a long way from its roots as a contractor.
Yong’s father, a former Works Department engineer, struck out on his own in the 1980s building schools and rural roads.
Crest Builder got its big break in the mid-1990s when it was awarded the construction of KPJ’s Ampang Puteri and Damansara Specialist hospitals.
The company was instrumental in many of Langkawi’s tourist attractions, including the island’s iconic cable car.
Yong says Crest Builder had also set out to establish itself in high-rise construction, especially in urban centres.
Along the way it scooped up projects like Menara Binjai, Twins at Damansara Heights, Setia Sky Residences, Verticas Residensi and Menara Bank Islam.
In the early 2000s Crest Builder had sought to get itself listed, and by June 2003 it completed a reverse takeover of MGR Corp Bhd.
It was then that Crest Builder made its foray into property development.
Luck had it that TOPS supermarket was just cashing out of the country, which led Crest Builder to the land that is now 3 Two Square in Section 19 of Petaling Jaya, the firm’s maiden development.
Crest Builder has since sold the shop offices, but kept the office tower and carparks for recurring income. They bring in a combined RM9mil a year.
Rental rates at 3 Two Square are averaging RM4.20 per sq ft and RM4.50 per sq ft for incoming tenants, according to Yong.
Crest Builder had also bought land in the Batu Tiga area in Shah Alam through a distressed sale from Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Bhd. The 36-acre site, now cut into two by the ELITE highway, was parcelled into five phases.
The land for its third development, Tiara Crest, was acquired from Telekom Malaysia Bhd when the telco decided to sell its 1.8-acre football field.
Against the grain
Then Crest Builder chanced upon what Yong calls an “unconventional landbanking strategy” – by unlocking value in government assets.
But this model has its downsides, not least of which is the long approval process.
Yong explains that once the letter of award is signed, the parties have two to four months to formalise the joint land development agreement, after which the landowner, in this case a government agency, will proceed to procure the land title, because the land was probably leased to them from the government.
That and Cabinet approval could take six months or longer. When this is done, the title can be used for development planning.
The Dang Wangi project, for instance, has yet to start physical works even though the award was announced in March 2012. Construction is expected to begin after Chinese New Year, which means the entire approval process would have taken some 22 months.
The land cost for such JVs also tend to be on the high side. The Kelana Jaya LRT deal, for example, was agreed at almost 25% of GDV, exceeding the usual 15%-20% paid to a landowner in Malaysia.
While the big boys have shied away due to the lengthy procedures, Yong believes the model can be attractive.
Despite the high land cost, the payment method is “friendly to our cashflow”, as no cash is needed upfront, he says.
In addition, the landowners typically agree to payment in kind and minimal cash, putting less strain on the developer’s balance sheet.
“It’s an easy payment plan for us,” Yong quips.
The yet-unnamed Kelana Jaya LRT development could well be Crest Builder’s most ambitious undertaking yet.
The project has no equal in Malaysia save for Plaza Pantai, which is integrated with the Kerinchi LRT station, but both structures had been built simultaneously.
Crest Builder has proposed two 30-storey blocks of residences and an office block linked by a podium, all of them on top of a live LRT station and using the surrounding land that currently serves as a carpark.
Yong admits that it will be a daunting task, but he says Crest Builder is up to the challenge.
It will also have to contend with powerlines that are just behind the station, which cannot be removed.
The plan for now entails an RM1bil mixed development comprising 70% residences, 20% offices and 10% retail. Yong hopes to secure a plot of ratio of six times the land area of 4.95 acres.
The project has earmarked 1,000 out of its total 2,500 carparks as part of a park-and-ride facility for the LRT station.
To alleviate parking woes during construction, Yong says his team will start work on the eastern side first and build three levels of carparks before opening it to the public.
Although the current parking lots can accommodate 800 cars, the actual capacity may be double that, as vehicle owners keep their handbrake loose to allow their cars to be pushed around, Yong points out.
Construction is slated to begin no earlier than mid-2015, with launches in the latter part of the year.
The condominium units are tentatively priced at RM1,000 per sq ft, comparable to the nearby The Paradigm Residence 1, which is already selling at an average RM1,000 per sq ft.
The residences at the Kelana Jaya LRT station will see average sizes of 700 sq ft with 2 + 1 rooms. The 100,000 sq ft of office space, however, is likely to be ceded to Prasarana as their entitlement.
Crest Builder doesn’t intend to keep anything in the Kelana Jaya LRT station for investment except the carparks.
As opposed to a full-fledged mall, Yong says the retail component will instead feature transit-based retail, affording commuters grab-and-go style offerings.
Meanwhile, Crest Builder’s JV with MRB for the 5.02-acre The Galleria is scheduled for a launch sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. MRB’s share of the project is 22.5%, or RM300mil.
Yong says it could be integrated with the Gleneagles MRT station on the circle line, although the exact alignment has yet to be determined.
The Galleria, sited opposite Great Eastern Mall and next to Gleneagles hospital, will feature 550 residences spread across three blocks, and an office tower.
MRB is likely to take up the office block, while Crest Builder plans to sell the residences and manage the mall below it.
Yong envisions a Bangsar Shopping Centre-type mall for The Galleria, catering to the expatriate community.
The Dang Wangi project, on the other hand, is set for an international preview in the second quarter, with markets like Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan on the list.
“The idea is to push the more expensive units overseas,” Yong quips.
The Bank will house 14 duplex penthouses costing RM3,000 per sq ft with sizes of about 2,000 sq ft, giving them a price tag upwards of RM6mil.

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