What's happening to BB Plaza?
Rumour has it that BB Plaza will be demolished to make way for the MRT project. Kong Wai Yeng talks to tenants at the declining mall for some answers. Photography Amir Rashid
Planted in the heart of our city that continuously stretches skyward, Bukit Bintang (BB) Plaza is so quiet it could pass off as a scene in ‘Dawn of the Dead’. There aren’t any zombies except for naked mannequins and shop owners who languidly roll their head from one side to another. People here are bored, business is scarce, and tourists only trickle into the souvenir and camera shops on the ground floor occasionally. Built in 1979, BB Plaza is turning into a ghost mall; except that it isn’t. It might actually be demolished to make way for the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) underground station. Tenants have been roused but for the wrong reasons. They’re on the warpath to seek explanation from the MRT developers who rescinded on their words.
‘At first, they said that the MRT project won’t affect us. Now they want us to move out? The management (UDA Holdings Bhd) left us in the lurch without a proper discussion with the tenants,’ laments camera shop owner KP Tam who spoke to us on July 1, three days before the authorities claimed that BB Plaza is staying. They later promised that if BB Plaza were to change ownership, the current tenants would be given priority at the soon-to-be renovated shopping complex.
KP Tam set up his camera shop Foto Edar in 1981, and braved the daunting transition era of analogue to digital photography. Having been in the mall for the past 31 years, KP Tam saw BB Plaza dwindle from the state of glitz to disuse and disrepair. ‘In the ’30s, there was also BB Park, which was where Sungei Wang Plaza is now. There were stage performances, cabarets, theatres and a boxing ring. I went there often, and the place was lively with locals and foreigners. And then the developers wiped out the place to build high rise, because we need to measure up to the exuberance and advancement of a city,’ says KP Tam.
It all sounds far too familiar. This scenario has played out several times in the last few months, starting with Jalan Sultan, Taman Tun Dr Ismail and now BB Plaza. The developers, MRT Co, are sparking pockets of fire across town – the fracas at Jalan Sultan has not yet abated and they’re harrying more people to launch into protests. If the city really had the rakyat in mind, why only choose to ‘upgrade’ BB Plaza when the MRT project is about to take place? Why not 15 years ago when shop owners were clobbered by recession, and had to carry on in dilapidated conditions before they faced the barrage of glittery malls like Berjaya Times Square, Pavilion and Fahrenheit 88?
‘The management didn’t create any publicity for the mall. Look at this place. On weekdays, there are more mannequins than shoppers,’ says Faizun, owner of JL Manshop who has been tailoring suits and Baju Melayu since 1985. ‘Before politicians took over the top positions in UDA, the management was good. Now, just compare our grotty toilets with Sungei Wang’s. No one is properly maintaining this place. People changed throughout the years as well. We used to be a tight-knit community, always looking out for each other. You know KP Tam downstairs? We’re good friends,’ says Faizun. It’s true. The top three floors of BB Plaza are occupied by rundown hair salons, a cluster of old boutiques and the deserted Metrojaya. The mall looks like a vacant shell that’s sitting on life support, waiting to get its plug pulled.
We approached UDA for their feedback and a managerial officer, who did not wish to be named, explained, ‘We’re doing everything we can to help the tenants. If BB Plaza were to be demolished, the UDA office goes as well. We have no place to go too. The tenants must understand that renovation and renewal may be good to help out their business.’ Should the refurbishment of BB Plaza take place and tenants forced to vacate, will there be compensation for business loss? What about the rental rates? The officer said, ‘Nothing is confirmed as of now. We’ll have to wait and see.’ Tenants at BB Plaza are currently paying a rental fee between RM3,500 to RM4,500, depending on the size of their shop. If they wish to relocate to other locations say in Sungei Wang, an unfurnished 300sq shop will cost at least RM8,000 for rent.
Bear in mind that the descent of failing malls doesn’t happen overnight. A mall fades out due to the pressure from new malls opening nearby, but its demise stems from poor and apathetic management. The blight of an ailing building is a weight on the community– empty malls can become liabilities if they sit unkempt, attracting crimes and lowering property values. BB Plaza is one of the last pioneer malls in KL, and it may be sad to see a place with so many memories razed. Instead of tearing down the building to construct the MRT, retrofitting the mall into a sustainable mixed-use centre might be a solution. The management can start with offices or fitness centres on the top floors while a public plaza, open-air store fronts and outdoor cafés dominate the lower ground to enhance pedestrian traffic.
The current mall culture calls for a place to socialise – it's no longer just a big-box store for people to shop. Building a MRT station near BB Plaza is both a blessing and a curse; it could breathe new life into the fallowing complex if BB Plaza is to stay. Or the unsightly infrastructure will be destroyed altogether for the sake of city regeneration. Granted, BB Plaza may not hold as much sentimental or heritage value as say, Jalan Sultan. But the point is, development in this city is often haphazard and lacks proper, convincing vision. Yes, this city needs to improve, needs to modernise, but at what cost?