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Face to face: Mohamed Al Khadar, Abu Dhabi UPC

Mohamed Al Khadar discusses Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s integrated approach to multi-developer megaprojects

INTERVIEWS, Projects, Abu dhabi, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, Megaprojects

The responsibilities of Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (Abu Dhabi UPC) are as important as they are expansive. Tasked with strategic planning across the Emirate, the body must guide and support developments in line with Abu Dhabi Vision 2030.

Mohamed Al Khadar is Abu Dhabi UPC’s executive director for urban development, as well as for its sustainability department, Estidama. Essentially, his job requires him to help shape the Emirate’s built-up areas and oversee urban megaprojects, whilst simultaneously encouraging a culture of sustainable construction.

The executive director’s primary role is to facilitate: to facilitate development, to facilitate sustainability, and to facilitate future residents. This might appear fairly straightforward at first glance, but when one considers the magnitude of the developments that Al Khadar is facilitating, one soon realises that it is anything but.

Take for example Al Reem Island, a multi-stakeholder megaproject being constructed on a natural isle 600m off the coast of Abu Dhabi. It is being driven by three developers: Tamouh, Aldar Properties, and Reem Investments. Each is developing its own portion of the 887ha community, the cost of which has been estimated at more than $30bn (AED110.19bn).

Millions of square metres, multiple stakeholders, and multibillion-dollar investments certainly make for an impressive megaproject, but such factors are not necessarily conducive to a timely completion.

Unit handovers at Al Reem Island have been scheduled over various stages by its respective developers. Construction began in 2005 – two years prior to the establishment of Abu Dhabi UPC – and the island’s first units were due to be handed over in 2010. This deadline wasn’t met, and the development has been hampered by delays ever since. At present, Al Reem Island is home to 20,000 people, the first units being handed over in 2011. Even so, it remains difficult to find a conclusive final completion date for the megaproject, with best estimates placing it around the 2023 mark.

For several years, Al Khadar has worked closely with community’s developers in a bid to facilitate progress. It is within this context that he and his colleagues at Abu Dhabi UPC approved the Al Reem Island Integrated Concept Master Plan (ICMP) in June 2015.

“Since 2005, each developer [at Al Reem Island] has worked individually on its own projects and plans,” he tells Construction Week. “The one thing missing – from a planning perspective – was an integrated master plan.”

That’s not to say that collaboration between the developers was non-existent. Together, Tamouh, Aldar Properties, and Reem Investments incorporated master developer, Bunya, which acts as Al Reem Island’s resident regulatory authority. Tasked with planning, executing, and managing operations at the development, Bunya is the developer of the community’s infrastructure, utilities, transportation, and facilities.

That being said, prior to Abu Dhabi UPC’s intervention, there existed no single plan to stipulate how the respective developers’ projects would integrate with one another, and the parameters within which the community would grow. Unsurprisingly, the creation of a master plan that allayed the concerns and satisfied the priorities of all three developers was no mean feat. As Al Khadar explains, the road to success was lengthy, and necessitated a series of delicate negotiations.

“We were working with multiple developers, and they had their own interests, markets, and plans,” he recalls. “It was very important to consider how to connect the developers’ plans. We had a draft plan in place approximately one year ago. We sat down with the developers and we put together a roadmap; a timeline to accomplish, close, and finalise the ICMP.

“Three major benefits to arise from the ICMP include: our raising of the cap on gross floor area (GFA), which now stands at 20-million sqm; our raising of the cap on the island’s population, from 200,000 to 210,000 residents; and of course, the connectivity that now exists between the developers’ projects.”

The benefits cited by Al Khadar provide ideal examples of the negotiations that took place during the creation of Al Reem Island’s ICMP. The raising of the community’s population cap, he says, was a priority for Bunya. Ensuring interconnectivity between the developers’ respective projects, meanwhile, was Abu Dhabi UPC’s primary objective.

“It was easier than we expected it to be; the only compromise that we made was to increase the cap of population,” Al Khadar explains, adding that all of the developers wanted a higher limit to be set.

“We considered all proposals, and settled at the midpoint by increasing the cap by 10,000 people. That was an exercise that made sense. The 10,000 increase satisfied everybody, and it enabled Abu Dhabi UPC to integrate greater connectivity between projects, and increase the number of community facilities,” he told Construction Week.

One could say that the public body negotiated on behalf of Al Reem Island’s future inhabitants. Al Khadar says that whilst he and his colleagues were perfectly willing to accommodate the commercial priorities of the developers, concessions were used to leverage additional facilities and amenities for the community.

This negotiation strategy certainly proved fruitful. The Abu Dhabi UPC team succeeded in securing several commitments from the developers, including increases in the number of schools to be built on Al Reem Island (raised from 15 to 20), and in the community’s total beach area (raised from 400,000 sqm to 750,000 sqm).

“It’s all about what’s best for Abu Dhabi,” Al Khadar notes. “It’s give and take. We were willing to push the population cap up by 10,000, but in return, we needed the developers to commit to more community facilities and entertainment; to make Al Reem Island a more attractive place for people to live.”

Of course, the ICMP represents much more than a mere negotiating tool for Abu Dhabi UPC. The master plan will serve as a practical framework for Bunya, facilitating smoother and more rapid progress at Al Reem Island. Perhaps its most important function, however, is to provide a tangible blueprint for inter-project connectivity.

“One of the major problems that can result from the lack of an ICMP is that different projects will not be linked effectively,” says Al Khadar. “For example, if you live in a building managed by Aldar and you want to visit a Tamouh complex, how do you travel? You will not be able to do so easily unless there is smooth and soft integration of transportation between the two projects.

“Connectivity existed in theory, but it was important for us to integrate it within the ICMP and to make it solid on the ground. If we had failed to account for this factor, it could have resulted in lots of problems during the latter stages of development. Right now, only 15% of Al Reem Island’s approved total GFA has been built. You can imagine that if the integrated plan is not in place by the time this figure reaches 40% or 50%, there will be more complications and occupants will not be satisfied. It is very difficult to rectify such mistakes later on.”

Turning his attention to the lessons learnt during the creation of Al Reem Island’s ICMP, Al Khadar says that all of the stakeholders benefited from their involvement in the process. But Abu Dhabi UPC’s executive director is quick to point out that master plans of this type should not be used by planning authorities as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy.

“It’s a matter of understanding the basic aspects of the project in question and planning accordingly,” he points out. “ICMPs offer the greatest benefit when there are multiple stakeholders in one place. In reality, this applies to relatively few cases.”

Nevertheless, Al Khadar and his colleagues have already identified an appropriate development for their next ICMP. Projects large enough to merit the use of such plans may be few and far between when taken within a global context, but Abu Dhabi is no ordinary city.

“We intend to use the same strategy at Yas Island,” reveals Al Khadar. “We will meet with the developers and go through the same exercise. As with Al Reem Island, there are multiple stakeholders at Yas Island.”

Essentially, Abu Dhabi UPC will decide whether to implement ICMPs on a case-by-case basis. Although the tool proved effective at Al Reem Island – and will no doubt facilitate progress at Yas Island – it is one that will be used sparingly, only when warranted.

But whenever the dots at one of Abu Dhabi’s multi-developer megaprojects do need to be connected, Al Khadar and his colleagues can act swiftly and decisively, safe in the knowledge that they have developed a tool that is up to the challenge.

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