Ashish Manchharam isn’t one for half measures. Take the time he switched to a vegan and non-alcoholic diet for a month – all in the name of research. With veganism and vegetarianism gaining popularity, and as more alternative food sources enter the market, he wanted to know his options when dining out. “It’s all part of the adventure. I’m just trying to understand the trend. Is there something that we can do to tap into that?” says the founder and managing director of 8M Real Estate, whose $500 million portfolio boasts 50 shophouses mostly in Districts 1 and 2.
Over the past five years, the real estate developer has done more than trendspotting; he’s resetting the scene and revitalising culturally rich neighbourhoods that have been neglected. To draw the public, he has a two-prong approach: bring in top F&B operators, and offer flexible-living accommodation plans at his hotels.
New York cocktail institution Employees Only has remained the talk of the town since he brought it to Amoy Street three years ago, and indie club Kilo Lounge continues to draw crowds to Tanjong Pagar since he relocated it in 2016.Blue Label Pizza & Wine at Ann Siang House is the go-to joint for many foodies.
Occupancy rates at the 20-room Ann Siang House average about 80 to 85 per cent, and about 90 per cent for Base Residences, the latter being fully serviced apartments in Hongkong Street.
His latest boutique hotel, Kesa House, which opened early this year, is his biggest and most ambitious. With 60 rooms and six restaurants spread across a row of 10 shophouses, its turquoise facade stands out from its mostly monochromatic neighbours. Within a week of opening reservations at Kesa House, guests – several were walk-ins – extended their two-day stays into two-month residencies, Manchharam says.
“A property like that was hard to come by because shophouse ownership is usually fragmented. You need critical mass to make an impact on the location. I thought, if we came in with a bigger property, we could help ignite that revival,” says the 41-year-old.
“Every generation has a demand for certain spaces. We want to enable what people are looking for by being relevant, bringing them back and, hopefully, they want to find out more about the area. You are creating history for the next 50 years.”
If there’s anyone who knows shophouses and its ability to be rejuvenated through re-adaptive use, it would be Manchharam. His family owns shophouses in Kampong Glam, including several in Haji Lane, and he grew up in one. He saw the revamp of Haji Lane as independent designers and quirky retailers moved in, in the early 2000s, transforming the narrow lane into a destination.
During his 12 years at property firm JLL, the former head of investments was posted to Hong Kong for three years. He had already been tinkering with the idea of starting his own gig, and it was there that he saw how old buildings in Staunton Street and Elgin Street were becoming the locations of choice for businesses and F&B operators. Elsewhere in the world, the successful re-adaptation of conservation buildings on London’s West End and at New York’s Brownstone cemented his resolve.
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“What attracted me was the fact that you have these conservation buildings in really great locations – and it’s an asset class that I know really well. That is something that makes sense to me,” says the father of two. “They have old facades but everything inside is new and they house Grade A office spaces that are professionally managed. If that’s where shophouses could be, maybe we should start something in Singapore and, hopefully, one day, we will get there.”
8M continues to work towards this vision. It has engaged architectural firm Woha to renovate four shophouses at the corner of New Bridge Road and Carpenter Street, as well as build a new tower at the back of the plot. When completed in 2021, there will be 45 to 50 accommodation units, while the ground floor will house F&B operators.
Plans are also afoot to redevelop the former Wanderlust hotel in Little India as well as six shophouses in Tanjong Pagar Street into boutique hotels. All accommodation will offer flexible-living plans. “The motivation is to keep it going and keep being fresh. In five years, how are you going to keep this same energy level? The answer is passion.”