'Shoebox King' says Ireland is ready for his compact homes
As property comes back, one of Singapore's richest men believes Dubliners would embrace micro-apartment life, writes Niamh Horan
Meet Ching Chiat Kwon - the Singaporean property developer who made his $420m fortune building 'shoebox' apartments.
The cop-turned-tycoon was in Dublin after his Oxley Holdings was picked by Nama, alongside Nama developer Sean Mulryan, to develop docklands site Dublin Landings.
On Thursday morning, the great and the good turned out for a breakfast buffet to hear Mr Mulryan's plans to give the financial district's North Dock a major facelift, developing 700,000 sq ft of office and retail space alongside 273 residential apartments.
The luxury apartments and a number of retail units will be home to 5,500 people. Amenities within the development will include rooftop gardens, a gym and a concierge service for residential tenants.
But his business partner Mr Ching is already looking for more development opportunities. Last year, the minimum size for a one-bed apartment was reduced from 55 sqm to a national standard of 45 sqm by the Government. Now the Singaporean sees a future in Dublin where apartment sizes can drop even further.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, the so-called "shoebox king" said his apartments would suit Dubliners' lifestyles.
"I don't mind whatever they are called: Mickey Mouse or shoebox," he shrugged when asked how he feels about his apartments' nicknames.
Describing the micro-dwellings as "commercially viable" he said that while building in the Far East he found, "you make more money, you sell at a higher price but the quantum is affordable".
In 2012, Singapore's government hit back at the developments in favour of family-friendly homes. But Mr Ching believes Irish property-seekers see things differently.
"In this part of the world, society is more mature. This smaller apartment can be readily acceptable. And for me, because of this project I am a partner of Nama, I respect the building guidelines - but if there is any opportunity that I am going to have more instances of them [Nama] around me, it will be a pleasure for me to introduce smaller apartments, which are about 30 sqm."
As for the 25 sqm apartments, which he developed in the Far East, he describes the units as "so cosy and nice".
If he goes one step up and builds 35 sqm apartments, he explains, buyers will feel their homes are "just like a five-star hotel".
Mr Ching, who stays in the Shelbourne Hotel while in Ireland, believes if your work and social life are full, a small living space is easier to tolerate.
"It's not the size, it is actually how you want to live your life, because you are not going to stay the whole day in the house. You go out to work, you come back at night and sleep through."
He reassures those who fear reduced apartment standards that "with the right facilities and in the right space, you will never feel it. Or be lonely in it".
"There are many things you can do around the neighbourhood in your home," he said.
Guests at the glitzy breakfast briefing, who were greeted by a man in a top hat at the end of a green carpet, included former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, who will take over as cultural advisor to the Ballymore Group.
But star guest on the day was former HSBC boss Michael Geoghegan.
Mr Geoghegan was appointed by Michael Noonan as chair of the Nama Advisory Board until 2014, when it was stood down. He was said to have flown in from Barbados to speak at the event.
The British former banker heaped praise on the State's bad bank, while praising Irish taxpayers for taking their share of the pain. "I think Nama has done a terrific job and I think Ireland has done a terrific job. There is no country in Europe, repeat, no country in Europe, that restructured its banking industry like Ireland has. It has faced up. The people of Ireland faced up to it."
Describing how ministers - who he saw criticised in recent days - had worked "tirelessly night after night to restructure this country", he praised the Irish for tightening their belts.
"The people of Ireland were most tolerant of any area. They suffered enormously. But they took that suffering. They changed their life. They reduced their salaries."
Meanwhile, speaking about his plans for Dublin, Mr Ching said he would have to comply with planning guidelines.
"Hopefully I will go looking around the city area to see if there is any opportunity to buy land and also I have to look at the guidelines, where the authorities allow a smaller apartment and how small they allow before I can do something."
The tycoon said compact apartments help the government in the long run.
"Sometimes we must allow these people to own a roof because when these people can't afford even a basic house they will give problems to the government because they will be frustrated."
This weekend, a market source told the Sunday Independent that several developers are frustrated with Nama's move to team up with certain developers on projects.
The so-called 'Group of Five' have complained to the European Commission that Nama is distorting competition in the home-building and commercial sector.
They include New Generation Homes, MKN Properties, David Daly, Paddy McKillen and Michael O'Flynn. They lodged their complaint late last year following Minister for Finance Michael Noonan's Budget announcement that Nama would fund the building of 20,000 homes in Ireland.
The men argue that Nama was established to repair the bank's balance sheets - but now the Government has gone beyond what was agreed with Brussels.
The Dublin Landings project is Mr Mulryan's first major development in Dublin city centre, having been backed by Nama, with land provided by the asset management agency.