Cover Story: Working towards a  low-carbon vision

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 26, 2017 - July 02, 2017.

Butterworth Railway Station ... The town is the gateway to the northern economic region

Harbour Place is among the rejuvenation projects in Seberang Perai

Jalan Baru in Seberang Perai Tengah will have a concentration of high-rise developments in the future

Bukit Mertajam is going through much redevelopment but one thing remains close to the hearts of the residents — the old market

Batu Kawan (right) in the south is earmarked to be the next property development hot spot in Seberang Perai

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Bukit Mertajam, one of the nucleus towns of Seberang Perai, has witnessed a distinct transformation from an agrarian economy to one driven by commercial and industrial activities as the pace of urbanisation quickens.

The cultivation of rice, spices, sugarcane and rubber has become a thing of the past while granite quarrying is gradually losing its shine.

But some things remain unchanged, such as the old market in Jalan Pasar, which holds much sentimental value for the residents.

The historical town, affectionately referred to as BM by the locals, is also home to St Anne’s Novena and Feast, an annual event held every July that draws massive crowds from around the region.

A sign of the redevelopment taking place is the new railway station off Jalan Muthu Palaniappa that was built to accommodate the electric train service, replacing the old station in another location that was demolished.

From modern infrastructure to numerous property developments, urbanisation is reshaping the township.

“As a town planner by profession, I see urbanisation as an opportunity where development can come in through a guided or well-planned way to improve the city,” Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, president of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), tells City & Country. 

Inspired by the global trend towards compact city planning, MPSP is promoting mixed-use developments to realise the vision of a low-carbon city. 

“Back then, Seberang Perai started with a separate zoning scheme for residential, commercial and industrial [areas] and this incurred a lot of commuting, resulting in high carbon emission. Today, we are moving towards mixed development of a compact city to address this issue. We want to create a living and working environment within the same vicinity. One of the key advantages of mixed development is that we will have the population [within the city] all day,” she explains.

The mainland portion of Penang may be overshadowed by the island in some ways, but it is now gaining traction among developers. The reasons for this include a bigger land mass that allows better planning for new townships and infrastructure development, as well as lower land cost. 

The narrow strip on the mainland, measuring 755 sq km, comprises three districts — Seberang Perai Utara, Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan.

Given the scarcity of land on the island, developers are eyeing the mainland, which has ample land. Among them is Eco World Development Group Bhd, with projects that include Eco Marina, Eco Horizon and Eco Sun in Batu Kawan, and Eco Meadows in Simpang Ampat.  Others include PJ Development Holdings Bhd, Hua Yang Bhd and Titijaya Land Bhd.

S P Setia Bhd, which bought a 1,675-acre freehold tract in Seberang Perai Utara recently, is planning an eco-themed mixed development township with a potential gross development value (GDV) of RM9.6 billion. 

The presence of big name developers signifies bright prospects for Seberang Perai property.


From farmland to modern development

Maimunah clarifies some issues regarding the conversion of farmland for development purposes: “We allow rezoning of agricultural land either to residential, commercial or industrial, provided it is located within the development area as stated in the Penang Structure Plan 2020. Of course we don’t allow rezoning of gazetted active padi land, forest reserves and water catchment areas.” 

The Penang Structure Plan 2020 classifies land use mix in Seberang Perai into 10 categories, including residential (12% or 8,680ha), commercial (1% or 975ha) and industrial (4% or 3,273ha).

Agriculture still makes up the largest portion at 48% (35,296ha) while infrastructure and transport account for 9% (6,386ha) of the mix. The plan is reviewed every five years, and considering the land buffer, there is a high possibility that land for development purposes will be increased as the population rises.

“We, however, need to control the mix of the development to ensure that only certain types of industry can be part of the mixed development — such as the services industry, tourism, commercial and residential. Purely industrial developments must sit within the industrial zone,” says Maimunah.

At present, the conversion of oil palm and rubber plots for development is most active in Seberang Perai Selatan, she says. Seberang Perai Utara, she notes, mostly comprises active padi land.


Lower land cost

From 2012 to 2016, there were a total of 224 approved mixed-use developments, comprising 17,245 property units, in Seberang Perai, with a total GDV of RM9.147 billion, statistics released by the Valuation Department show.

Lower land cost is another advantage the mainland has over Penang island. From 2005 to 2017, the price of land in Seberang Perai Utara rose by between RM10 and RM50 to a range of RM20 to RM90 psf, depending on the location. For Seberang Perai Tengah, the price rise ranged from RM15 to RM50, to hit RM25 to RM150 psf, and for Seberang Perai Selatan, from RM10 to RM28 to between RM15 and RM75 psf.

Listings on between March 22, 2016, and April 18, 2017, for the sale of residential land clearly show a big disparity between the island and the mainland. Asking prices on the island ranged from RM45 to RM1,487 psf, compared to RM29 to RM250 psf on the mainland.

The Property Market Report 2016 by the Valuation and Property Services Department (JPPH) shows that a total of 5,646 residential properties were launched in Penang last year. Of this, Seberang Perai accounted for 1,312 units (23%) with Seberang Perai Tengah taking the lead (517 units), followed by Seberang Perai Selatan (422 units) and Seberang Perai Utara (373 units). 


Gateway to Seberang Perai Utara

Butterworth, the largest town in Seberang Perai and the gateway to the northern region, remains the focal point of Seberang Perai Utara. The New Butterworth Image Plan, an extended partnership between MPSP and Think City until 2020, aims to gentrify specifically four areas — Pekan Lama, Penang Sentral, Butterworth Waterfront and Perai River. 

Think City is an urban regeneration organisation that focuses on creating livable and sustainable spaces with community participation in mind. The wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd was established in 2009 to rejuvenate the Unesco World Heritage site of George Town. The idea is now being adopted in Butterworth.

“We are concentrating on Pekan Lama at the moment. The pocket park in Jalan Kampung Benggali and Rain Garden in Jalan Jeti Lama are two ongoing rejuvenation projects,” says Maimunah.

Jalan Raja Uda, Jalan Chain Ferry and Jalan Kampung Paya are the other key focus areas to benefit from the MPSP-Think City partnership. Bagan Ajam, Bagan Dalam, Bagan Jermal, Bagan Luar and Mak Mandin will also be experiencing significant redevelopment and new development, she adds.

In an effort to inject more life and soul into Butterworth, several events have been lined up on the MPSP calendar. These include the annual Butterworth Fringe Festival, Butterworth Discovery Walk, Butterworth Run, Star Sanctuary Photography Awards, Funride d’Bagan, My Butterworth Children Mapping, Tempatan Fest and Penang Night Zumba.

“A city without activities is a city without soul. Therefore, our aim is to foster people’s interest in Butterworth through those calendar activities,” says Maimunah. “Rest assured, a new Butterworth is in the making.”

She believes that the much anticipated Penang Sentral transport hub, a major component of the Penang Transport Master Plan, will be the catalyst for the next wave of developments for the harbour city.

“It will become a magnet for Butterworth, especially the surrounding areas, where approved projects are waiting for the transport hub to be ready before they [developers] start work,” she says. 

Penang Sentral is a transit-oriented development undertaken by Malaysian Resources Corp Bhd (MRCB), modelled after KL Sentral in Kuala Lumpur. It will feature an integrated terminal for all transport services, covering bus, rail and sea connectivity, as well as commercial, retail and residential developments. Phase one of the project, which has been plagued by delays, is due for completion this year. 

Other major proposed transport developments are the 7.2km Penang Undersea Tunnel that will link Bagan Ajam on the mainland to Gurney Drive on the island, the 4.8km Penang Sky Cab connecting Penang Sentral in Butterworth to George Town, and the 18km George Town-Butterworth LRT.

“Butterworth will one day improve a lot in terms of accessibility and connectivity. The future will be there for it,” Maimunah affirms.

Kepala Batas has also transformed significantly over the last two decades. Developments there include the 700-acre self-contained Bandar Putra Bertam by Hunza Properties, and a gated project in Bertam by UDA offering semidees and bungalows.


Bukit Mertajam and Juru

In Seberang Perai Tengah, Bukit Mertajam and Juru have been undergoing massive land use transformation, from non-built-up to built-up development in the past three decades, according to Maimunah. The two townships are located within a 23km radius of Butterworth. 

She says quite a few high-rise, terraced and institutional developments have been approved near the old town of Bukit Mertajam, in Jalan Ciku, Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng and Jalan Aston. 

The town will get a boost under the Bukit Mertajam Urban Renewal initiative, a collaboration between MPSP and Yokohama City, Yokohama City University, Japanese International Corporation Agency (JICA) and Universiti Sains Malaysia, “which aims to rejuvenate and improve the sustainability of the town”.

Maimunah points out that Seberang Perai Tengah is the most developed of the three districts. Seberang Jaya, Prai Industrial Estate and Auto City Juru are all found here, as is one end of the Penang Bridge. The MPSP headquarters are located in Bandar Perda, Bukit Mertajam. 

“If you link up Bukit Mertajam, Juru and Butterworth, they form a good corridor of development. In Butterworth, you can look for things that are cultural, art, heritage and tourism oriented. If you are into things a little bit more trendy or hip, go to Auto City Juru . If you want to see where the biggest Catholic pilgrimage in Malaysia takes place, go to St Annes’ Church in Bukit Mertajam,” Maimunah says. 

Alma, arguably the most bustling township outside the old town of Bukit Mertajam, is home to a high concentration of terraced housing developments, including Taman Alma, Taman Desa Alma, Taman Permata, Taman Desa Cahaya, Taman Alma Jaya, Taman Alma Ria, Taman Sejahtera and Taman Seri Impian. Asas Dunia, a well-known developer in Seberang Perai Tengah and Selatan, built Taman Impian Indah and Taman Impian Ria in Alma.  

AEON Mall Bukit Mertajam and Tesco Bukit Mertajam in Jalan Rozhan are two of the largest malls in Alma. 

Along Jalan Baru, which is easily accessible from the North-South Expressway and Penang Bridge, many high-rises are being planned, among them, GEM Residensi, GEM Mall, Gravitas, The Starhill Garden, Meritus Residensi, d’Square and Palma Laguna Water Park Condo.


Penang Second Bridge

The opening in 2014 of Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge, known as the Penang Second Bridge among locals, has brought a sea change to Seberang Perai Selatan. Many areas of swampy or plantation land have been converted to residential, commercial and industrial use. 

“Urbanisation is taking place rapidly in townships like Batu Kawan, Bukit Tambun and Simpang Ampat in Seberang Perai Selatan. Seberang Perai has experienced accelerated growth in the last five years. As developers seek land, they often purchase bigger pieces, such as 10,000 acres, and this is available in Seberang Perai,” says Michael Geh, senior partner of Raine & Horne International Zaki + Partners Sdn Bhd.

The once swampy backwater of Batu Kawan — the third satellite town of George Town after Bayan Lepas and Seberang Perai — has been undergoing tremendous development since the opening of the Penang Second Bridge.    

“Batu Kawan, built around the eco-city concept, is earmarked to be the next prime industrial zone for Penang. It has so far attracted, among others, Robert Bosch, Boon Siew Honda, VAT Manufacturing Malaysia, Sandisk Storage Sdn Bhd, Hewlett-Packard Malaysia Manufacturing, Haemonetics Malaysia, Malaysian Automotive Lighting, and Flex (formerly Bose Systems Malaysia) to set up their bases there,” says Maimunah.   

Elaborating on the eco-city concept, she says, “This is the only area in Seberang Perai that we can build from virgin land, more or less, to include all our sustainable and livable plans into township planning.

“Batu Kawan will be the role model of well-planned urbanisation and is today touted as the nucleus of Seberang Perai Selatan.”

The Penang government, which owns Batu Kawan through Penang Development Corporation, had earlier announced the 11,800-unit Bandar Cassia Affordable Housing Scheme under the Hijau E-Komuniti master plan to cater for about 59,000 residents. Bandar Cassia is also home to lifestyle mall, Design Village.

The 245-acre freehold residential and commercial development Aspen Vision City by Aspen Group will include IKEA (to open in 3Q2018), KDU University (first phase completion in 2018) and University of Hull, also known as The Ship Campus (first intake in 2017).

Apart from Batu Kawan, Simpang Ampat has been identified as another growth centre in the Draft Local Plan of Seberang Perai, while Bandar Tasek Mutiara in Simpang Ampat is an new emerging township, says Maimunah.

Jawi is also gaining attention. IJM Land will be developing a 70-acre, freehold mixed-use development called Senjayu, next to the Jawi toll of the North-South Expressway and a short drive to the Penang Second Bridge.  

“From the perspective of property development, Seberang Perai is the future of Penang,” Maimunah sums up.