Old Clare Hotel will be Central Park’s centrepiece

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 98-room hotel, now trading strongly as the Town Hall Hotel. “If you look at the early hotels we did in Singapore — actually, if you had sat down and done a business plan, you would not have done it,” Loh says, referring to another project of his, Singapore’s Hotel 1929, which was converted from a former brothel.

In Sydney, Loh speaks freely of the difficulties he has had converting The Old Clare, especially in dealing with planning authorities and local councils. He has encountered many obstacles over the years on his mission to take rundown pieces of urban heritage and convert them into fabulous properties. But apparently, Sydney has outdone anything the civil servants of Shanghai, Singapore or London could throw at him.

“The regulators here need to do something,” he says. “They really need to cut their red tape. It’s an amazing amount of red tape. There are so many, SO many consultants’ reports you need, I have never encountered this before. We have more than a dozen consultants. I am not sure who is reading all these reports because I haven’t had time to read them. So when I see the amount of reports we have to churn I am like ‘Really? This is my project and I don’t have time to read them. Really these civil servants have time to sit down and read them?’”

Loh is less forthcoming on how much the whole conversion will cost. “It is not costing more than $50  million but it is quite a lot of money,’’ he says. “The project has caught me a bit by surprise in terms of the construction costs. It is very expensive in Australia, plus we have just had a complex build.”

Adding to the cost is Loh’s insistence on maintaining the building’s heritage, installing solid spotted gum floors, and using natural palettes to showcase the natural Australian materials he is employing throughout the hotel. The pub’s windows could have been replaced but Loh insisted on restoring them in situ. “What I really don’t like is when buildings are over-restored,” he says. “We are stripping back some layers and leaving it there. People will see the original fabric of the building rather than having brand new painted walls, which I think are kind of boring, no matter what colour you paint it.”

Loh now has approval for the restaurants on site. Former Nomu executive sous-chef Sam Miller will run his first solo restaurant, Silvereye, in The Old Clare Hotel, while Clayton Wells, previously of Momofuku Seiobo and Quay is opening Automata. Atherton will open his first Australian venue, the 118-seat Kensington Street Social, which is certain to act as the local canteen for the thousands of apartment residents in Quek’s glitzy Frasers development overlooking The Old Clare.

Despite the costs and the planning friction, Loh is keen on doing more hotels and restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Auspiciously for him, the federal government wants a myriad hotels and resorts built by 2020. Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who has responsibility for the $110bn tourism industry, is calling on local and international hoteliers and investors to build 80 hotels in our capital cities and regions within the next five years to cope with the expected international holiday-maker demand. One hopes there is more where The Old Clare Hotel came from.

In The Neighbourhood