S-E Asia's tallest tower to rise in KL

MALAYSIA - The narrow, tree-lined roads around Stadium Merdeka are mostly quiet, coming to life just twice a day when schoolchildren arrive at and spill out of the six colonial-era schools nearby.

At other times, traffic is sparse. Down one road is the 119-year-old Victoria Institution, whose alumni include Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Malaysia's second-richest man Ananda Krishnan, and former Singapore deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam.

"I have worked here for 20 years and things have always been this quiet," said Mr Naina Mohammad, 52, who helps run a roadside restaurant. "But this could change soon, and I don't know whether the restaurant will be allowed to remain."

He was referring to plans to build Southeast Asia's tallest tower, at 118 storeys and a height of 596m, a stone's throw away.

The Warisan Merdeka (Independence Heritage) project is part of a huge complex that will include two condominium blocks, a hotel tower and an underground subway station.

The developer of the RM5 billion (S$1.95 billion) project is the government's trust fund manager, Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB).

The government says the development will take this almost forgotten corner of the city into the 21st century. But nearby building owners and conservationists warn that its old charm and heritage value are in danger of being lost forever.

Two huge plots of land, including what used to be an old public park, will be filled with the new skyscraper that will dwarf the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers which is 452m in height.

Singapore's three tallest buildings are all 280m tall - UOB Plaza One, Republic Plaza and OUB Centre.

At the heart of the Malaysian debate is whether this heritage district of Kuala Lumpur should be touched at all.

Stadium Merdeka - Malay for Independence Stadium - has a special place in Malaysian history. It was here, on Aug 31, 1957, that Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first prime minister, declared Malaysia's independence from Britain.

Other stadiums here hark back to the country's old sporting days - such as Malaysia's first big indoor hall Stadium Negara (51 years since it was opened), the first large athletics arena Chin Woo Stadium (60 years old), and the 18-year-old Malaysian Basketball Association stadium.

None of them will be torn down, but the area will be busier than usual soon, as if there are big sporting events every day.

A visit last Wednesday saw excavators digging up the subway site as lorries filled with soil drove out.

But otherwise, the pace of life is markedly slower here than at the Petronas Twin Towers area six monorail stations away.

The trees provide cool shade for taxis and delivery trucks, with their drivers dozing off.

Several tourists, walking from the train station to Chinatown some 1km away, stop to snap pictures.

"Since this is a heritage zone, the proposed project must consider the surrounding area such as having no high-rise buildings," Mr Tang Ah Chai, executive director of a lobby group to stop the project, told The Sunday Times.

A non-governmental organisation, Pertahankan Taman Merdeka Negara (Protect National Independence Park), grouped 25 building owners and associations to protest against the new complex, which is slated to be ready around 2020.

Mr Jimmy Chok, an elder at Gospel Hall of Kuala Lumpur, a 120-year-old church located close to the project site, said apart from an increase in traffic, he is worried about a surge in usage of water, electricity and sewage systems.

The church will stay but he wants the authorities to be more open about how everyone will cope with the changes.

Others have mixed views about the project.

"I don't mind the rise of office buildings here, but do we really need such a tall tower in an area with narrow roads?" asked Mr Shazali Yunus, 35, who visited Stadium Merdeka last Wednesday to snap pictures.

PNB president and group chief executive Hamad Kama Piah Che Othman has said that the tower will maximise the site's potential.

"The heritage part will not be sacrificed and will actually serve as the enhancement factor to the commercial aspects of the building," he said.

To property researcher Ho Chin Soon, the complaints about Warisan Merdeka are similar to those he heard when the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) and the Petronas towers were being built 20 years ago.

"When the KLCC was coming up, a lot of people objected. Now people take friends from overseas to eat and shop there, and the place is popular with tourists," he said.


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