There's a lot to be said for an economy where pesky barriers like democracy don't block the way for major real estate deals. Want to launch a job-creating, tourism-enhancing, revenue-generating multibillion dollar development in record time? If you're Singapore, you can pull off a mega-resort, with hotels, shopping, convention center, casino, museum and theater in oh, say, four and a half years, start to finish.
The second phase of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, the $5.7B integrated resort designed by architect Moshe Safdie, and developed by Las Vegas Sands Corp. (parent company of such Vegas stalwarts as the Venetian and the Palazzo) opened last month on a parcel of land smack dab in the middle of Singapore's Central Business District and is already busy minting money from Asia's avid shoppers and gamblers.
This week, Safdie was in town to show off a portfolio of properties that his firm is unveiling this year. Many have been in the works for 10 or 12 years, due to complex designs and a brutal economic climate. But the 10-million-square-foot Marina Bay project includes:
- A three tower, 56-story hotel with 2561 luxury rooms, topped by a SkyPark with a scary-looking infinity pool and the world's largest public cantilever observation deck.
- A 1.3 million square foot convention center with SouthEast Asia's biggest ballroom.
- An 800,000 square foot shopping mall with 50 restaurants (including boites by Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy, Tetsuya Wakuda, and Santi Santamaria).
- Two state-of-the-art theaters, an art and science museum, and a 15,000 square foot casino, with one of the world's largest Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
And it was all built in less than five years, from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting.
Are you listening, World Trade Center?
The trick? "With the casino, they knew that the faster we got it done, the faster they'd start making money," says Isaac Franco, a principal at Safdie Architects, and one of the architect's closest lieutenants. "They were willing to throw money at it seven days a week, in two shifts -- morning and night -- because they knew that once it was open, in five years they'd break even."
Happily for the Singaporeans, Dubai's nosedive freed up hordes of Southeast Asian construction workers, eager to mount a crane and get to work.
The project, first proposed by Singapore's government as a way of luring some of the cash being showered on neighboring casino-happy Macau, was also an ambitious ploy to keep the country in the forefront of the tourism and convention business. Beside the gaming, hotel, and convention center portion, however, the specs also called for a cultural component and a massive shopping mall.
The original competition drew a flurry of contenders, which were eventually whittled down to four. Midway through the process, the Singaporeans decided they didn't like the Sands Corp's architect (way too "Vegas"), and the company's CEO, Sheldon Adelson, was left scrambling for somebody who could jump in, virtually at the last minute. Fortuitously, at about that time, Adelson happened to meet Safdie at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum (which Safdie had designed) and offered him a crack at the project. Safdie had four months to submit a plan.
The architect's design, which included a vast waterfront promenade, set the hotel towers back from the bay, which opened up spectacular views of the city. He also proposed a massive, hydraulically adjustable public piazza, which turned out to be an engineering nightmare. Adelson was ready to throw in the towel on it and other features that were proving too costly, but the government would have none of it.
"The government said that everything in the drawings were part of the agreement," Safdie told a group of architecture buffs assembled at lunch at Daniel on New York's Upper East Side. "This project would not look like this without the Government Urban Redevelopment Authority. It's like nowhere else in the world."
Despite the fact that the Singapore government charges locals $100 a day for access to the casino as a deterrent from gambling, the place has been mobbed since the first phase opened in late June, attracting half a million gamblers in its first month. It's projected to generate at least $1 billion in annual profit.
The SkyPark, a dazzling expanse of landscaped gardens, restaurants, observation decks, and pools -- longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and big enough to park four and a half A380 jumbo jets -- has also become a major attraction.
Its odd, asymmetrical appearance was not, Safdie said, originally in his design. But the project's feng shui master "harassed me enough to do it, insisting that it would be a symbol of power" so he finally gave in.
When completed, later this year, Marina Bay Sands is expected to employ 10,000 people directly, and add 20,000 jobs in ancillary businesses. It reportedly will add $2.7 billion or .8 percent to Singapore's GDP annually. Hard to top that for stimulus program!