LOH AND BE­HOLD

THE DERELICT COUNTY CLARE HO­TEL ON BROAD­WAY IN SYD­NEY’S CHIP­PEN­DALE NEEDED A DE­VEL­OPER WITH A TEN­DER TOUCH, A PAS­SION FOR HER­ITAGE BUILD­INGS, AND A CAST-IRON CON­STI­TU­TION

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Monitoring - STORY LISA ALLEN POR­TRAIT DO­MINIC LON­ER­A­GAN

You can tell a lot about Loh Lik Peng from the cut of his clothes. Born in Ire­land to Sin­ga­porean par­ents, he trained as a lawyer in Eng­land; but to­day he is decked out in the uni­form of the new-breed designer hote­lier: checked shirt over blue jeans. Since 2002, the unas­sum­ing Loh has as­sem­bled a port­fo­lio of seven bou­tique ho­tels and 20 glam­orous restau­rants in Sin­ga­pore, Hong Kong, Shang­hai, Paris and Lon­don.

Life was rel­a­tively sim­ple, un­til Loh, founder of the Un­listed Col­lec­tion brand of ho­tels and restau­rants, launched him­self on Syd­ney. His mission: to con­vert the derelict her­itage-listed County Clare pub and Carl­ton & United Brew­ery of­fices in Chip­pen­dale into an ul­tra-luxe 62-room bou­tique ho­tel with rooftop pool and three restau­rants — one boasting Miche­lin-starred Bri­tish chef Ja­son Ather­ton, who runs the 22 Ships tapas bar for Loh in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai.

The Old Clare Ho­tel, due to open in Au­gust, will be a cen­tre­piece of the $2 bil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment of the for­mer CUB site as Cen­tral Park. To date the com­plex con­ver­sion has in­volved the de­sign of more than 20 room lay­outs with some suites show­cas­ing the pub’s old bars and oth­ers tucked high in the new loft. Adding to the com­plex­ity, for the old board­room to be pre­served it had to be suspended in mid-air for six months while the rest of the build­ing was de­mol­ished around it. With cost blowouts and the need to deploy 120 con­struc­tion staff on a dif­fi­cult site in busy Kens­ing­ton Street, Chip­pen­dale, the progress of the ho­tel has not been smooth.

“My sit­u­a­tion was that by the time we were look­ing at de­tailed cost­ings and stuff it was too late. Too late to turn back,” says Loh. “Ob­vi­ously I don’t want to lose my pants over it,” he adds, laugh­ing. “And re­ally, [Un­listed Col­lec­tion] ho­tels are not purely about fi­nan­cial re­turns. Of­ten it’s re­ally be­cause you fall in love with a project and there is a huge amount of pas­sion, rather than pure num­bers — oth­er­wise you are right, we would never have come to Syd­ney.”

In his quest to build a designer ho­tel in an unloved spot, Loh is tread­ing sim­i­lar wa­ters to hote­lier James Bail­lie, of Lord Howe Is­land’s famed Capella Lodge and Kan­ga­roo Is­land’s Great South­ern Lodge. Bail­lie re­cently pulled the plug on the devel­op­ment of a luxe $1000-a-night bou­tique ho­tel in Syd­ney’s The Rocks be­cause it got too dif­fi­cult and too ex­pen­sive.

Mid­dle Eastern air­line Emi­rates also ran foul of bu­reau­crats when it at­tempted to de­velop a luxury re­sort near Syd­ney’s Blue Moun­tains. There was a di­a­bol­i­cal four-year hia­tus be­fore a sod was turned on the project now called Emi­rates Wol­gan Val­ley One&Only.

“Yes, I prob­a­bly can un­der­stand Bail­lie pulling out,” Loh says. “Yes def­i­nitely. He had the same ar­chi­tect as me, Tonkin Zu­laikha Greer. I know a lit­tle bit about the tra­vails that he went through. Yes I do to­tally un­der­stand it.”

Back in 2011, Loh was in­tro­duced to the Clare site in Chip­pen­dale by the de­vel­oper of the Cen­tral Park precinct, whom he knows as “Un­cle Stan­ley”. The Sin­ga­porean doc­tor and prop­erty de­vel­oper Stan­ley Quek is not ac­tu­ally a re­la­tion but an old fam­ily friend — Loh’s fa­ther lec­tured Quek in medicine at Trinity Col­lege in Dublin. Since then Quek has spent 20 years de­vel­op­ing luxury hous­ing in Lon­don and Sin­ga­pore and has a per­sonal net worth of mil­lions of dol­lars.

“Un­cle Stan­ley de­scribed the prop­erty to me, I came over, I looked at it and I thought ‘Wow, this is the kind of project I love’,” says Loh, who spe­cialises in open­ing bou­tique ho­tels in long-aban­doned ar­eas. “It was a prop­erty that was right up my street. Un­cle Stan­ley knew it was a prop­erty right up my street. He was preach­ing to the con­verted, re­ally. Projects that are suit­able usu­ally find you, I think. It was more or less love at first sight.”

De­spite the fam­ily con­nec­tions, con­vert­ing the Clare build­ing into a luxe bou­tique ho­tel is one of the hard­est con­ver­sion projects Loh says he has ever taken on. And he has had some tough ones, such as turn­ing the im­pos­ing Beth­nal Green Town Hall in Lon­don’s East End, which had been derelict since the 1980s, into an op­u­lent 98room ho­tel, now trad­ing strongly as the Town Hall Ho­tel.

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