Hong Kong billionaire real estate developer Vincent Lo’s most celebrated business success is Xintiandi, the swank nightlife and shopping district in Shanghai famous for its architecture that calls to mind the international city’s history of a century ago. It has won awards for Shui On and architect Benjamin Wood.
With an eye toward creating another icon linking past and present in a commercial destination, Lo nine years ago turned to Wood for a project that spreads across a 1,000-year-old Shanghai area water town. Once used by small traders, “Panlong Tiandi” aims to beckon outsiders with historic conservation village houses, bridges and canals, along with shopping, apartments and office space, in an eco-friendly environment.
Panlong Tiandi had its public debut on Saturday, timed to coincide with the long May Day holiday in China that’s also known as “Golden Week.” In its first two days, the site attracted approximately 350,000 visitors to what Shui On hopes will be “a new lifestyle and commercial model” that will inspire other “urban retreats” in similar old water towns in that dot the Jiangnan area south of the historic Yangtze River region. The designs notwithstanding, the big weekend turnout was helped by popular relief with the end of China’s “zero-Covid” policies in December that had hurt economy and travel in 2022.
Shui On and Wood’s Studio Shanghai left no “stone unturned in restoring, rebuilding and designing this legacy destination” over the nine years it took to bring the project to life, said Wood via WeChat. The name “Panlong” comes from an ancient road leading to Shanghai, he said; Tiandi refers to “heaven and earth” and is also part of the name of Shui On flagship Xintiandi. MIT-educated Wood is the author of a new book, “Into The Dragon’s Mouth: Stories from an American Architect Who Changed China,” that explores his own path from fighter pilot to design success in China.
Vincent Lo’s interest in Shanghai has been longstanding. The Hong Kong native for years was known as “Mr. Shanghai” for promoting the city around the world even though he hails from Hong Kong. His daughter Stephanie Lo, a Shui On executive director and heir apparent, spoke at Panlong Tiandi’s opening ceremony and emphasized the project’s connection to the city. “Shui On has been committed to Shanghai’s continuing urban renewal and city development,” she said, according to a press release. “Our aim is to create sustainable premium urban communities,” she said. “Our hope is that Panlong Tiandi will become an iconic regional showpiece contributing to the integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta, where new community experiences can create new understanding of Shanghai’s rich culture.”
Shanghai is today a key Asia business hub of more than 20 million. Yet its role as a commercial center is relatively new by Chinese historical standards. Nearby Suzhou, for instance, had a longer imperial history. Though China’s economy is picking up this year, overseas arrivals to the country are still down, hurting key tourist hubs such as Shanghai. Intensifying geopolitical rivalries, military exercises around Taiwan, and strained relations between China and much of the West aren’t helping; neither is a controversial new law to crack down on spies and a series of reported investigations by authorities involving American companies such as Bain and Capvision in the country.
Still, Shanghai remains one of China’s richest cities. Shanghai and Beijing led China – the world’s No. 2 economy after the U.S. – in disposable income in the first quarter, according to a report in government-published China Daily this month. Shanghai came in at 23,489 yuan, or $3,405; nearby Zhejiang Province was No. 3 with 20,158 yuan.
With a total floor area of over 500,000 square meters, Panlong Tiandi has 230,000 square meters of green public space, including a walking trail and outdoor sports venues. Some 53,000 square meters of commercial space will focus on new lifestyle options with a common eco theme as part of what Shui On called “a rural reinterpretation of Xintiandi.” Panlong Tiandi preserves Panlong’s water system and bridge culture, as well as the town’s cross-street pattern, the developer said.
Panlong Tiandi also recreated historical sites to revive Jiangnan’s heritage, and has public art exhibitions in collaboration with Shanghai’s Yuz Museum and Art in Green. To date, Panlong Tiandi’s retail space has signed up with 140 brands, Shui On said. Nearly 20 “first” stores in Shanghai and more than 60 regional “first” stores are locating in the site, it noted, differentiating it from Xintiandi.
Shui On can use the business boost. Though Vincent Lo is worth $1.6 billion on the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List today, Shui On’s Hong Kong-traded shares are down nearly 7% this year. Founded in 2004, the developer had 14 projects in various stages of progress as of the end of 2022, with a landbank of 9.3 million square members. It’s one of the largest private commercial property owners and managers in Shanghai, with a total portfolio of 82 billion yuan of commercial assets located in prime locations in Shanghai; it also has projects in Wuhan, Nanjing, Foshan and Chongqing.
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