Stephen Cheng’s passion for restoration: What’s old is new again

Old Laperal building.

Heritage buildings are structures that have a long association with an area or location. They are an important part of the community. They help define its physical, social and cultural identity, and thus are worth preserving.
But the problem is some heritage buildings have outlived their usefulness, like the old office buildings around Binondo. Although they serve as a reminder that Binondo was once the country’s commercial and financial hub, many of them lack the requirements needed by companies today – parking space, air conditioning, backup generator, among others.
Upgrading or renovating the buildings to meet today’s safety codes and other requirements can turn out to be more expensive than building a new structure. Some businessmen, though, are willing to take on the challenge of rehabilitating Manila’s old buildings. Stephen Cheng (莊競程) is one of them.
A product of the Tsinoy educational school system, Cheng started preschool at Chiang Kai Shek High School in 1962. From grade school to high school sophomore, he shuffled between Grace Christian, Chiang Kai Shek, St. Stephen’s and Philippine Cultural high schools, finally completing high school at De La Salle University-Greenhills.
He took up mechanical engineering at DLSU -Taft Avenue in Manila and later received a scholarship grant to attend Pace University in New York City.
Upon returning home to the Philippines, he started working for his family’s paper business, got married and had two daughters.
In 1992, he and his wife were approached by taipan Henry Sy to enter into a partnership of setting up and managing SM Appliance Center. It proved a fruitful partnership, with Cheng’s wife handling the management side of the appliance center.
Cheng is passionate about history. He developed an interest in heritage buildings as he and his wife would often travel to historical places. They were impressed at how buildings in other countries are preserved and then creatively reused. He decided that if an opportunity to buy a heritage building came up, he would do it. In 2012, such an opportunity came: the four-story Laperal Apartments along CM Recto Ave. in Manila was up for sale.
Built in 1946, when the streamline modern style was introduced locally, Laperal is not a pure streamline style as the architect also incorporated art deco style, such as in the grill works. Its original purpose was to serve as a luxury apartment building, but by the 2000s, the building was in terrible shape and most of its original tenants had moved elsewhere. The family that owned the building suffered financial problems, so they offered the building to Cheng, who promptly bought it.
Cheng is quite aware that the building needed to be made financially viable to justify the purchase. He knew there were big challenges ahead, such as dealing with the Manila City Hall.
Cheng explains, “Local city ordinances work against preservation. Take parking, for example. Old buildings don’t have enough parking spaces as they were built before the car ownership boom. Today, city hall requires that developers should make available a certain number of parking spaces.
“But the problem is most lots in Manila aren’t that big. In most cases, developers have to demolish part of the building just to make more parking spaces available.”
In order to make his plan work, Cheng recruited a dream team of architects and contractors who shared his vision.
“We had to find an architect who is willing to help preserve and restore. Because a lot of architects told us that preserving Laperal doesn’t make sense. They advised us to knock the building down in order recover our investment,” says Cheng.

Four-bed student room.

Cheng fortunately found the right architect and restoration team in Miguel Ocampo Tan and Patrick Apacible. He also found the right contractor to carry out their plans in Ramon Jamera Chua. After much planning and deliberation, Cheng and his team came up with a rescue plan for Laperal Building.
The original four-story structure was to be maintained and made the centerpiece of the redevelopment project. A 14-story annex and a mini-mall will be built at the back of the original building, which will be developed into a lifestyle hub for University Belt students.
Work on Laperal began in 2014, but there was another problem: hardly any record exists showing what Laperal used to be like. “There are no blue prints as the records at the city hall were destroyed. We don’t even know who the original architect was, and there are no photos of what the interior used to look like. We know that Estrelle Bakery used to be here as well as Ascott dry cleaning service. But that was all we know about it.”
However, the lack of information did not hinder Cheng and his team. “This gave us freedom to restore as we see fit,” he said, adding that although it was a challenging project, it was not so difficult with the right people in the team.

How Laperal Apartments looks like today.

By 2016, Cheng and his team had finished rehabilitating the Laperal Apartments. It was repurposed as a student apartment which Cheng had dubbed as the Youniversity Suites.
Each of the units is semi-furnished with private baths. Students can choose from shared apartments that are good for two or four residents. If they want some privacy, units for one are also available.
Laperal’s ground floor was leased to commercial tenants like Watsons and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.
The mini-mall at the back of Laperal officially opened in 2018. Cheng named it the L.A. Village, inspired by the Anaheim Packing House in Southern California.
To connect the bodega-like interior of the mall with the history of Laperal Apartments, he put on display unique 20th century antiques, including a World War I German Fokker Eindecker monoplane, a 1940s Airstream travel trailer and a 1940s gas pump.
First time visitors to the L.A. Village would draw comparisons between Laperal and some of Metro Manila’s flashier commercial areas such as Ayala Center and Bonifacio Global City.
Besides food and retail outlets, the L.A. Village also offers a gym, a laundry shop, a billiard hall and a study hall.
Cheng shared how important it is to find the right mix of tenants: “We view our tenants as business partners and our relationship with them as long term.”
This philosophy is evident when he signed up in-house Japanese restaurant Rosanjin. Its Japanese chef/owner has been Cheng’s friend for more than 25 years.
But it was not just because of their long relationship that Cheng offered the ground floor space – he was also confident that his Japanese friend could provide authentic Japanese food at affordable prices for the students.
Cheng even acts as a mentor to his tenants. While we were going around L.A. Village, he would often stop and talk with the tenants. It always ended up with Cheng advising the owners what they could do to better improve their operation. While tenants are not obliged to follow his advice, they do seem appreciative that Cheng listens to their concerns. He really wants to see his tenants succeed.

The Study Haven on the fourth floor of L.A. Village offers students a quiet and spacious place to review.

So far, Youniversity Suites is doing well, having full occupancy. More student apartment units will become available once the 14-story annex at the back is finished.
It is amazing how they were able to lease out all the units, as the rental rates here are high by University Belt’s standard. An 11- square meter apartment for one student can cost P12,000 per month.
But Cheng insists otherwise. “In a way, our prices are very affordable. We based it on the price that a student shells out if they commute five times a week for a month. We also adjust the price depending on the length of stay. If a student stays here for a year, the price for the apartment goes down to P10,000 a month.”
Students can also have the option of sharing an apartment with three other students, contributing P5,000 per month to the rent.
Another reason why Youniversity Suites has full occupancy is its concern for the resident’s safety and security. Security guards are visible and are trained to deal with various emergencies. CCTVs are everywhere.
They also have strict visitation rules. Even parents of the residents are not allowed to go up to the apartments. They are required to wait at the lobby if they wish to speak with their children. Because of this sense of security, 70 percent of the residents are female.
Furthermore, there are grills installed on the ground level facing CM Recto Ave. to keep out illegal vendors and prevent illegal parking.
Despite being a novice in conservation, Cheng did a good job on Laperal. Cheng said if he and his team have it their way, they would want to revitalize the area from Laperal down towards Rizal Ave.
In fact, he has acquired the adjacent Floriendo Building and began rehabilitation work already. But he is unable to refurbish the other building adjacent to Laperal as it was sold to another developer. Cheng claimed that he spotted that developer visiting the L.A. Village with his team and taking pictures.
With creative thinking, conserving heritage buildings is indeed possible. If other developers follow Cheng’s lead and copy his idea, then perhaps the future of Manila’s heritage buildings is not so bleak after all.