SINGAPORE - What started as an urgent but mundane need to expand Terminal 1 will now end in a Jewel - Changi Airport's hoped-for iconic centrepiece to wow travellers and enhance the air hub's attractiveness when completed by 2018.
Merely to expand the terminal would have been a wasted opportunity, said the chief executive officer of Changi Airport Group, Mr Lee Seow Hiang, at the ground-breaking for the retail cum airport complex yesterday.
"To address the capacity bottleneck, we could have just pushed out T1 and built a multi-storey carpark over it. But we felt we could do so much more. We had a chance, for the first time, to hub the three terminals together."
And so the decision was made to raze T1's open-air carpark and construct in its place a five-storey-high complex with five basement levels which would link all three passenger terminals.
T1 would also be upgraded and expanded in the $1.7 billion project.
Explaining at length, for the first time, the rationale and thinking behind the project, Mr Lee, who is also chairman of Jewel Changi Airport Development, a joint venture between Changi Airport Group and CapitaMalls Asia, admitted questions had been asked about the project.
Was this a vanity showpiece? In the light of manpower constraints in Singapore, why build another retail mall? Was the airport getting distracted from its core business of aviation?
"This question of purpose is not a trivial one," he said, stressing that the first driving force behind the project was the growing capacity constraints at T1.
Having decided that the terminal must expand and more should be done with the piece of land, the decision was made to build a complex with close to 70 per cent of the total gross floor area of about 134,000 sq m set aside for retail with about 300 shops.
Yes, Singapore has about 150 malls but many serve local communities with only a handful that are strong enough to capture the attention of tourists, Mr Lee said.
Jewel, which will be funded and operated by the new joint venture firm with CapitaMalls Asia, plans to be different, he said, though the retail mix has not been finalised.
Throwing his weight behind the project, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who was the chief guest at yesterday's event, said: "We are operating in a dynamic and increasingly competitive environment. Passengers today are spoilt for choice as air hubs around the world actively pursue new ways to boost their appeal as destinations and as transit points."
Jetstar Asia's chief executive officer Bara Pasupathi agreed, noting the development of Jewel would "better serve the sophisticated taste of travellers in the region".
Renowned architect Moshe Safdie, 76, the man behind Marina Bay Sands who is leading the design team for Jewel, has big dreams for the project.
Mr Safdie, who also attended the ground-breaking, said: "I would like to think that in four years, people outside Singapore will say to their friends, 'When you go to Singapore and land at Changi, don't dare to leave the airport before you visit Jewel'. Or better still, perhaps say 'You must fly to Singapore or travel to Singapore because you've got to see that Jewel'."