DESARU INTERNATIONAL RESORT – An incredible vision, project and experience

Kevin Young Master Planning

Picture48sIn 1987, I was a planner/designer for a company in Honolulu named Helber, Hastert, Van Horn and Kimura Planners. One day, an Indian fellow from Cleveland, Ohio came into our office for a meeting. He brought with him a large stack of topographic maps. He told us of his incredible plans to build a “mega resort” on the coast of Johor, in Malaysia, about an hour and half from Singapore. He told us he wanted us to master plan it in association with an architectural company we were associated with named Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo. This “mega resort” would have several signature golf course designed by the biggest names in golf, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Gary Player: many themed resort hotels; a winter wonderland with snow (in the jungle!); a large marina; conference center and many types of housing. It was the grandest and most bizarre project any of us had ever heard of! It was like a grand fantasy! At the end of the meeting, he told us he had to go back to Malaysia and finish securing the land and getting the project approved by the Johor government. Once he had completed that, he would be back to start the master planning of the project.

Well, he disappeared for over a year! Then one day in 1988, he returned to our office and said he had accomplished his goal and wanted us to start the master planning the next week! Well, my boss and mentor, Larry Helber had a previous commitment and couldn’t go. So the next thing I know, I am on a Singapore Airlines jet headed for Singapore. Myself and one of the architectural designers arrived in Singapore and were transported to the site, which was on 4,500 acres of land overlooking the South China Sea on the east coast of Malaysia. Besides seventeen kilometers of beach, the site was mostly covered with dense rainforest and jungle!

We spent about a week walking as much of the property as we could, along the beach and along one foot wide paths through the jungle which had been cut by the surveyors. I had always been taught by Larry that in most cases, the land would tell us what the answers were…what the master plan should look like. The topography, hills and valleys, shoreline and views would give us a major clue as to where the various uses should be located and how they should look. After walking as much of the property as we could, we sat in our hotel rooms and began to draw up concepts for the resort. We would usually start with a road layout because, of course, access to the site and to the various land uses was so important. Then we would layout preliminary locations for all the various uses including the hotels, golf courses, residential uses and all of the other uses.

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Once we had finished as much as we could on-site, we flew back to Honolulu and began to work with Larry to refine our plan. We divided the huge property into six precincts or areas, gave them all names like the Wilderness Precinct, the Golf Precinct, the Marina Precinct, the Beach Resort Precinct, the Lakes Precinct and the Entertainment/Recreation Precinct. Then, one at a time, we developed concepts for each precinct which showed in “bubble” form what uses would be located in each precinct. Eventually, we put all the precinct plans together into one master plan showing a conceptual plan for the entire resort. The next step was to develop a land utilization schedule which showed the client what uses were in each area, how much land they would cover and how many rooms or units they would generate. This plan was presented to the owner so he could give us his input into the plan. Over the next six months or so, each precinct was refined and detailed. The architects gave us concepts for each of the eleven themed hotels. We laid out preliminary routings for the five championship golf courses. We developed a plan for the marina and the surrounding uses. We did preliminary layouts for the residential areas overlooking the beaches and the golf courses. We located rustic and tourist-serving facilities in the Wilderness Precinct. We spent many more hours walking the site on our own and with various consultants. As we did, we got to know almost every little detail of it.

When this process began, I had asked the head surveyor what animals, insects, etc we should watch out for or be afraid of as we hiked in this dense jungle. He had told us about deadly cobras, swarming wasps and the occasional large cat or even elephants. From that point on we were all very scared and very careful when out walking in the jungle. Luckily, we did see two elephants in the wild, but never had any unfortunate encounters with snakes or other dangerous creatures!

As what turned into nearly a year of master planning work, the plan became more and more detailed. We would have meetings with various consultants, like surveyors, civil engineers, theme park designers, marina consultants and so on. Most of our meetings would include a few specific consultants as well as our team of planners and architects. Then one day, the client informed us that he wanted all of his consultants to meet at the site for a two week long planning meeting. There were to be 105 consultants at this meeting! As luck would have it, Larry had a previous commitment.   So he told me I would have to lead this huge and very important meeting! I had never even met 105 consultants, let alone lead them in a huge meeting.

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So, the following week I found myself flying to Singapore for the latest of many visits. The owner had arranged for a number of the consultants to be picked up by a bus in Singapore at about 4:30 pm one afternoon. So we all boarded the bus for the hour and a half or so ride to the site. As it got later and later, many of the consultants began to complain of being thirsty and then hungry! A very good friend of mine, a landscape architect, Alan Clarke and I got to talking about this and suddenly hatched a plan. We started sharing our plan with the others on the bus and suddenly we had “hijacked” a bus full of consultants and were heading down a road through the jungle to a little seafood restaurant located along the Johor River. Chili crab is a very famous dish in both Singapore and Malaysia and we were all on our way for a fantastic Chili Crab dinner!   So, once all of us, including our bus driver were all satiated from a fantastic dinner of chili crab, chili sting ray, salt and pepper shrimp, sambal kangkong and quite a few cold beers off we climbed back into the bus to finish our journey! When we arrived at the hotel, our client was fuming! Why were all of his consultants an hour and a half late! Where had they been? Were they okay? Who was responsible. Well since my friend Alan and I had been the instigators, Alan and I told him what we had been up to and he was still fuming, but for a very different reason! He was upset we hadn’t called and invited him to meet us! Well, in those days we didn’t have cellphones, so there would have been no easy way to have done that.

For the next two weeks, I lead 105 consultants in many detailed discussions related to the planning, design and marketing of this incredible project. It was, for me personally, one of the most educational two weeks of my career. Everything went quite smoothly and we advanced the master plan by quite a bit.

Eventually our office completed the master plan. In those days, much as we do now, upon completion of the plan, we prepare an “Illustrative Plan” or “Footprint Plan” to illustrate in as much detail as possible the elements of the plan and how they will look in plan form. Well, in those days, we didn’t have computers and CADD (computer aided drafting) or photoshop, which we typically use today. So, as the chief designer on the project, I spent an entire summer drawing the illustrative plan for the resort, all by hand. I would get up at 8:00 am, draw until lunch time in my condo, have some lunch, go for a swim (it was Hawaii and it was summer!) and then go back to drawing until late in the evening. The next day, I would get up and do it all over again! Finally, after almost an entire summer, I finished the plan. It was drawn at 1 to 200 scale, which was the smallest you could draw things and still discern what was being shown. The final master plan drawing was a whopping 21 feet long and 6 feet wide! I took it into the office in the middle of the night, laid it out and went home. The next day when I finally got up and went into the office, I arrived to a bunch of amazed colleagues who had never seen anything like my drawing. We then had it photographically assembled and printed in one huge drawing. Then, the entire office staff used magic markers and colored pencils and we all colored the whole plan. Once it was all complete we invited our client to our office to see his finished master plan. The plan covered two full walls in our conference room. He was amazed and totally delighted to see his vision come to life! For him, it was the first major step in realizing his grand dream!

Sadly, in the end, after two and a half years of work by hundreds of consultants, the development partners, including the owner, his Japanese investors and his Malaysian investors started fighting. As a result, the project fell apart and ended being discussed in various courtrooms around the world. I was the first one on the site and I was sadly in the resort company’s office the day they closed down and walked away from the project! After all of our extremely hard work and thousands of hours working on the master plan, we never got to see it come to fruition and be built. For me, it was still one of the most amazing projects I have ever worked on and held some of the most amazing experiences I have had in 35 years as a planner.